Reliever Brandon Workman bailed the Red Sox out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning, fanning Yankees rookie Gleyber Torres to register the biggest out of the night in ALDS Game 1.
BOSTON — Brandon Workman entered Game 1 of the ALDS to clean up someone else’s mess, then made his own. In between he saved the game, and maybe the series, for his Red Sox.
Boston beat the Yankees 5–4 in a game that somehow felt even tighter. And the Red Sox were never closer to disaster than in the top of the sixth, when Workman found himself on the mound, up two runs but surrounded by men in gray, trying to slow his heartbeat.
Thirty hours earlier he had felt a different kind of anxiety, wondering if he would make the postseason roster or watch in street clothes as his teammates chased a championship. Workman, 30, is the only pitcher on the staff who appeared in the 2013 World Series, which Boston won, but he had not seen the playoffs since. The Red Sox played golf in October in ’14 and ’15, then he spent ’16 in Double A, recovering from Tommy John surgery. In ’17 he did not make the ALDS roster. In those five years he has gotten married, in ’15, and had a son, last year. He is a different person and in many ways a different pitcher. But he was one of three relievers fighting for two spots, along with righty Joe Kelly and lefty Bobby Poynor, and although Workman tried to prepare as if he were a lock, part of him was dying to hear those words. After the team’s Thursday workout, he finally did.
His relief did not last long. When manager Alex Cora summoned him from the bullpen on Friday, it was to a game much easier to lose than to win. Starter Chris Sale had gone five strong innings but allowed singles to two of the first three hitters he faced in the sixth. As his velocity dipped and his command suffered, Cora went to righty Ryan Brasier, another journeyman righthander. Brasier, pitching in his first postseason, gave up a single, a fielder’s choice and a walk. Suddenly the Red Sox’ lead was only 5–2. Workman entered and promptly walked Gary Sánchez on four pitches—“none of ‘em even close,” Workman said after the game—to load the bases. Rookie second baseman Gleyber Torres strode to the plate.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie trotted out to the mound. “Slow things down,” he reminded his pitcher, as the infielders huddled around them, arms on each other’s shoulders. “Let’s get it back. Hit the reset button here.” He reminded Workman to watch his location against Torres, who feasts on inside fastballs. Then he went back to the dugout and left Workman to decide the game.
At first base, Steve Pearce controlled his breathing as he considered the stakes. Pearce was once jettisoned five times—by four teams—in six months, so he has sympathy for a man who did three stints this year in Triple A. But standing on the dirt, he did not think about Workman’s career trajectory. He thought about how badly he wanted to win the game and how easily it could slip away. “That’s the moment,” he said afterward.
With two out and the bases loaded, Workman reset entirely and went to the windup. The first pitch was a cutter, down and away, trying to stay off the bat. Torres took a big hack and missed. On the TBS broadcast, former All-Star righty Ron Darling said, “When you’re a young hitter, you want to be the hero, but just a base hit gets you closer.”
The Yankees’ lineup contains as many as five such young hitters on any given night. Rightfielder Aaron Judge is 26 but in only his second full season. First baseman Luke Voit is 27 but has played 109 major league games. Sánchez is 25. Torres, 21, and third baseman Miguel Andújar, 23, cannot rent cars. They are all supremely talented, but they represent a weak spot for New York this postseason: inexperience. The Yankees hit 267 home runs this year, the most in baseball history, but their .249 batting average did not inspire much fear in opponents. Very often a team is happy to make that trade-off. But sometimes a base hit gets you closer.
Workman tried to expand the zone with a fastball away but missed his spot. Catcher Sandy León dove to his right and corralled the pitch, saving a run.
Pitch three was another cutter, almost identical to the first, but Torres laid off. In the bullpen, lefty Eduardo Rodríguez began warming up. The Red Sox’ relief corps is so depleted by injuries and ineffectiveness that their next-best option was a converted starter who had a 5.40 ERA in September. The rotation is strong, but the bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel sways wildly over the ravine. So little does Cora trust his bullpen that in the end the team would burn projected Game 3 starter Rick Porcello in the eighth inning.
At 3–1, León expected Torres to swing. Pearce expected Torres to swing. Workman was less sure. “My command had been a little erratic,” he said. “I wasn’t too surprised he made me throw a strike.”
He painted the outside corner with a 91 mph four-seamer. Torres threw back his head and grimaced as the umpire barked.
“I was ready to hit,” Torres said. “I [thought] the ball was a little outside.”
“He hasn’t been close with his slider,” Darling said. “I think you have to go after him again with that fastball.”
The runners took off. Workman looked in at León’s sign. He didn’t shake. He never does. He adjusted his grip, and floated an 80-mph knuckle curve inches below the bottom of the zone. As it danced by, it almost winked at Torres, who nearly swung out of his spikes, then flung his bat toward third in anger.
“He got me,” said Torres. “He pitched it and I missed. I’m really mad.”
Workman pumped his fist and howled while his teammates lost their minds, first at the result and then at the intestinal fortitude required to locate that pitch in that situation.
“I don’t know if I’ve yelled that loud on a baseball field in my career,” Pearce said. “I was pumped.” What did you yell, Steve? He laughed. “I don’t think it’s printable.”
And you, Brandon? “I have no idea.”
Of course, this was only the sixth inning. There were still nine outs to get. Workman allowed singles to the first two hitters in the seventh before Cora went to righty Matt Barnes. In the end, Workman only got that one out. But it was a critical one: If the Yankees take the lead there, they likely win the game. Then the Red Sox have wasted a Sale start and need a win in the highest-variance outing of the series: David Price’s start. Price is a former Cy Young Award–winner who pitches like a stud in the regular season and owns a 5.74 ERA as a starter in October. No one in Boston wanted to rely on that game to keep the team alive.
This is a precarious matchup for the Red Sox. They were lucky to escape with the win on Friday. “Our training room has become an emergency room,” said LeVangie after the game. “We’re gonna ask a lot of these guys.” So his words to Workman after that sixth-inning strikeout rang true, even if Workman could not deliver: “Good job. Keep going.”