By: Chad Jones
For the first time since the 2013 Fall Classic, the Red Sox put together a solid postseason series. They finally fixed many of the problems that had plagued them in the last two first round exits. The starting pitching rose to the occasion in games 1, 3 (especially), and 4. Three of the top four hitters produced key runs for the offense. The bullpen, although stomach churning at times, was able to get big time outs at pivotal points. Also, the team relished in many random moments of postseason excellence.
While they will definitely need to clean up some components if they want to knock off the Defending Champs, this team played with composure and a presence they have not had since they were “Boston Strong”.
Let’s begin with the starting pitching. This area might have been the biggest bugaboo for the 2016 and 2017 Sox. Whether it was Porcello, Price, Bucholz, Sale, or Fister, no hurler was able to put together a performance good enough for a W. Too many times a Sox starter would bury the team into an early deficit. They would get lit up like a Christmas Tree against the big time hitters, and also fail to get the less talented hitters outs. This series was a lot different.
This time around, Chris Sale set the tone early, in the first inning in fact. With all of New England worrying about his shoulder, Sale threw the first pitch at 96 mph to Andrew Mccutchen. 37,731 nervous souls simultaneously got whiplash from jerking their heads towards the radar gun. Game on. From there, Sale would strikeout eight before being lifted after one out in the 6th. (We will return to the game 2 starter later).
Game 3, with all the momentum in New York New York’s favor, Nathan Eovaldi took the mound. While Eovaldi had success against the Yankees, that was the rational the Yankees had with JA Happ starting Game 1, and look how that turned out. He came through with the best pitching performance of the series. Eovaldi struck out five and allowed one run through 7 innings. That was the game the Sox scored 16 runs, but he still dominated the Yankees in the “House That Jeter Built”. A very impressive feat.
Game 4 came down to Rick Porcello, whose job was to try his damndest to not let this series get back to Fenway. Porcello came through with, by far, his best ever postseason start to date. He kept the Bombers off balance all night, even when he left balls in dangerous places. He got through 5 innings while only surrendering 1 run, 5 hits, and no walks.
The starting pitching needed to give this insanely talented offense a chance to work it’s magic. They did much more than that. They struck out great hitters, retired pesky batters, and frustrated a very skilled & balanced New York lineup. The starting staff was the worst part of the last 2 postseason failures. In this series, they were the arguably the biggest reason the Sox prevailed. If this team is going to beat Houston, they need the starting pitchers to up their game to an even higher level.
The offense also deserves credit for how well they played in this series, especially in New York. The last two years, the big bats came up empty too many times. This series was an entirely different story. Of the 4 most important hitters in the lineup; Betts, Benintendi, Martinez and Bogaerts, 3 of them had productive series. (We will come back to the leadoff man).
Andrew Benintendi had a very productive series, and delivered either the biggest, or second biggest hit in the series. Batting in the 4th inning of game 3, The Red Sox were up by 4 and looking to do more damage. Benintendi smoked a ball down the right field line, clearing the bases. 7-0 Sox lead. Ball game. With 1 swing, he ended the Yankees chances of a comeback. Benintendi ended the series hitting .286 with 3 runs batted in.
J.D. Martinez did what J.D. Martinez had been doing the entire season; be the driving force for the Red Sox offense. Martinez did not wait too long to join the October Party. In this first inning of game 1, he smacked a “3 Run Johnson”, as Dennis Eckersley would say, into the first row of the Monster. This shocked the Yankees and J.A. Happ, would last just 2 plus innings while allowing 5 runs. Martinez wound up hitting a cool .357 while driving in 6 runs.
Xander Bogaerts had a rough time last year against the Astros, hitting a paltry .056. He bounced back with a very good .294 average and drove in the only run the Sox could muster off of Masahiro Tanaka in Game 2. It was important for Bogaerts to have a good series after his poor performance last year.
The offense needed to take some of the pressure of the pitching staff, which they managed to do in all of the Red Sox wins. The team got contributions up and down the lineup. The offense did not need to rely on the three hitters above to score runs, as key role players Steve Pearce, Ian Kinsler, Christian Vazquez, and most memorably, Brock Holt.The Red Sox are going to need a well balanced offensive attack if they want to knock Houston out of the playoffs.
While the Red Sox played a very solid postseason series, and proved to the Yankees and their fans they were the better team, 3 key players did not perform well against the Yankees. Mookie Betts, David Price, and Craig Kimbrel were all awful in this series.
Mookie was one of the only Sox players who performed last year in October. This year was a different story. He hit just .188 while striking out 4 times in the 4 games. The Sox got away with his lack of production in the first round, but this could be their downfall if he continues to slump. The Red Sox will not get to the World Series with Betts hitting under .200.
The Astros have George Springer as their leadoff hitter, who has hit 8 home runs and driven in 10 runs in Houston’s last 10 playoff games. Betts needs to be the straw that stirs this drink. He has to get on base, extend innings, drive in clutch runs, and be the spark plug the Red Sox are going to need. If he has another down series, it is hard picturing the Red Sox prevailing over the Astros.
The biggest negative storyline for the Red Sox in the first round was that David Price had an embarrassing, laughable, humiliating Game 2 loss at Fenway. With the Red Sox looking to take a commanding 2 games to none lead to New York, Price must have pulled a Severino and forgot what time the game started. He failed to show up for the biggest start of his career. Aaron Judge hit a ball to the moon in the first inning off a hanging cutter; 1-0 Yankees. The next inning, Gary Sanchez hit a screamer into the Monster leading off the second; 2-0 Yankees. Gary Sanchez is basically Price’s daddy at this point. I think he actually owns his birth certificate and gets him Christmas presents every December. He has 6 home runs in just 14 career at bats. Yuck.
After McCutchen laced a ball off the Monster for an rbi single, Alex Cora had seen enough. He took the ball from Price after he allowed 3 runs in an inning and 2/3rds. Price took the air right out of Fenway Park.
It is obvious Price cannot pitch that atrociously if the Red Sox are going to beat Houston. Cora is giving Price the ball for Game 2. He will be looking to either tie the series at 1-1, or trying to give the Sox a 2-0 lead heading to Houston.
This might be Price’s last chance to turn his legacy around. I am not sure what the Red Sox will do if Price has another clunker on Sunday night. He might ask for a trade, or the Sox might be looking to shop him if he gets rocked. Price needs to show his manager, his teammates, and the fans that he is not the classic choke artist you read about. The Fenway Faithful will be looking to turn into boo birds really early on. This might be Price’s last chance to show that he does not fold under pressure every single time the lights shine the brightest. No pressure David.
The last guy who needs to step up big time is Craig Kimbrel. In both Red Sox close wins, games 1 and 4, Kimbrel was anything but a shutdown closer. In game 1, he hung a curveball to Judge, who promptly hit the ball to “Williamsburg”. That cut the lead to 1. He then struck out Stanton, who New York is barbecuing after a subpar series. He fanned the next 2 Yankees to wrap up game 1.
Then in Game 4, he was all over the place. With the Sox up 4-1, he walked Judge on four pitches to open the frame. Yankee Stadium came alive. After Gregarious singled to put runners on first and second, Kimbrel used his curveball to strikeout Stanton. After walking Voit, he plunked Neil Walker in the foot with a first pitch curveball. After Sanchez hit a fly ball to the warning track for a sack fly, Gleyber Torres hit a grounder to 3rd that Nunez was able to scoop and throw to get him at first by a step. What an ugly save by Kimbrel.
He got the job done twice in save situations, but no fan could feel comfortable or confident watching him pitch in that series. He had issues last year against the Astros, so Kimbrel needs to step up in this Astros Series if the Sox want to move on.
Red Sox fans finally got a well played and well managed playoff series. Cora pushed all the right buttons, most of the important players stepped up, and key contributions from the role players proved to be pivotal.
However, the Sox need to be firing on all cylinders if they want to dethrone the Astros. Betts, Price, and Kimbrel all need to step up their performances. The Astros are coming off a World Series win, and are arguably even better this year. These are the two best teams in the sport about to face off for a chance to go to the 114th Fall Classic. The Red Sox can knock off the Defending Champs, but they will need contributions from every coach and player to do so.