Relentless Red Sox grind their way into ALCS

Wednesday October 9th, 2013

Boston's pesky tablesetters, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, made life miserable for the Rays in the ALDS.

The plan worked. The Red Sox pulled off the baseball equivalent of turning around a hulking battleship on a dime in the middle of the ocean -- first with the help of the Great Bailout trade with the Dodgers in August 2012 and then with a clearly defined and executed offseason agenda. Boston turned a 93-loss team that was nobody's valentine into a 97-win team that is four wins away from the World Series while holding homefield advantage in the American League Championship Series.

The offseason plan was built on four cornerstone ideas: hold contract lengths to three years, even if it meant overpaying on an average annual value; find a manager, unlike the last one, familiar with the local landscape and AL baseball from, oh, maybe the last decade or so; seek out extroverted baseball rats who would watch the game from the top step of the dugout and not behind a bucket of fried chicken in the clubhouse; and pack the lineup again with hitters who grind out at-bats. That last cornerstone turned out to be the most important reason why the Red Sox dispatched the Rays in four games in the AL Division Series.

Boston's Game 4 victory last night was a clinic in how to wear down a team. The Red Sox won the game without an extra-base hit. They scratched out six singles. But they also bled eight walks and two hit batters out of Tampa Bay pitching, forcing the Rays to throw an exhausting163 pitches. Boston's rallies in the seventh and ninth innings, the ones that led to a 3-1 win, both began with walks. The Red Sox put 62 runners on base in the series' four games before worn out Tampa Bay finally cried "uncle."

This was as it has been all season for the bearded ones. Boston improved the number of pitches it saw this year by seven percent, jumping its per-game average from 148 to 158. The Red Sox faced 640 more pitches than any other team in baseball. (In the ALDS, they actually fell one tick below their regular season average, coaxing 157 pitches per game from the Rays.)

"They were really good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "They didn't make any mistakes. You could see their grit I talked about from spring training on. I think they've really promoted the character within that group, and they're just gamers. They've got a bunch of gamers over there. And that's what really I felt from the other side."

Watching the Rays pitchers try to navigate the Boston lineup -- particularly the pesky top third with Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia -- was like watching a finicky child trying to eat a plate of vegetables. It went slowly and with a pained expression. Maddon ran through nine pitchers last night, including four to get the first 11 outs because he decided starting Jeremy Hellickson was a better idea than going with Chris Archer.

Somehow Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning. But another walk doomed them, this one from Jake McGee to Xander Boegaerts after jumping ahead, 0-and-1. "And that's pretty much how that whole thing began to roll," Maddon said.

The Red Sox have the best home record in the league (53-28) and will go into the ALCS with their pitching fully rested and lined up. But manager John Farrell's team can be stopped. It will take a team with starting pitchers with the kind of stuff to attack them in the strike zone. The Tigers fit that profile better than the A's. Consider 140 pitches a line of demarcation. When opponents threw no more than 140 pitches in a game against Boston, they went 27-16. But when they needed more, they were just 38-81.

2. A's can't seal the deal . . . again

If Oakland should lose Game 5 tomorrow at home against Detroit, you should expect any sequel to Moneyball to show up in the horror section of your favorite online streaming video service. Having coughed up an 8-6 hairball of a loss to the Tigers in Game 4 of the ALDS, the A's are 1-11 under general manager Billy Beane since 2000 when they have had a chance to clinch a postseason series. In potential clinching games, they have held leads in five of their 11 losses.

What gives? Each loss has its own pathology. No one reason is convenient enough to explain why Oakland would lose so many key games. It has lost eight of those 11 games by one or two runs. The Athletics' luck may be terrible, but so too is their execution. They blew two leads yesterday (3-0 and 4-3). After loading the bases with no outs against the Tigers' Max Scherzer in the seventh, they could not put the ball in play in either of their next two plate appearances before the door slammed shut with a line drive out to center.

(Weird Scherzer stat: over the past year and a half, hitters are 0-for-14 with one walk against Scherzer with the bases loaded.)

Now the pressure is on Oakland in Game 5. It's not just that the Athletics are facing Justin Verlander. It's that fairly or not, they have acquired the reputation of a team that can't close out a series.

3. Notes from another day of riveting October baseball

• Oakland starter Dan Straily had not allowed an extra base hit to 100 consecutive batters before he fed Johnny Peralta exactly what he was sitting on: a fastball. Peralta capped a five-pitch at-bat in which he took sliders and swung at fastballs by swatting a fastball for a game-tying three-run homer in the fifth.

• Maddon did not keep any player in the same spot in his batting order for the Rays' four ALDS games. He used four players in the seventh hole and three in the third and fifth spots.

• Victorino is a gamer, but the way he hangs his arms over the strike zone has become more than a nuisance. He is getting hit by pitches that are actually over the plate. I can't believe opponents and umpires keep allowing it to happen.

• Where are you Russell Martin and Yadier Molina? The Tigers added a huge tack-on run and the Red Sox pushed across the tie-breaking run when respective catchers Stephen Vogt and Jose Lobaton could not block pitches in the dirt with a runner on third. Both plays were difficult. The point is how good Martin and Molina have been this postseason at blocking pitches. Their glovework should not be overlooked.

• Think the Cardinals and A's have the edge in Game 5 because they are the home teams? Think again. Home teams are 5-9 over the past two years in do-or-die games (games in which both teams face elimination).

• The bunting this postseason has been atrocious. This is what happens when the sacrifice bunt is used at an all-time low rate, as happened this year. Then we get close games in October and managers embrace it -- though their players can't do it. Give credit to Oakland second baseman Eric Sogard, who dropped a seventh-inning bunt that set up a run yesterday. The A's put down just 21 sacrifice bunts during the season. Only the White Sox had fewer.

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