For the first time in nearly a decade and a half, baseball’s best rivalry is back in October. The Boston Red Sox hosted the New York Yankees for Friday’s Game 1 of the ALDS. The Red Sox got on the board quickly, with a three-run dinger in the first inning from (who else?) J.D. Martinez. With three consecutive hits to open the third inning, they soon stretched their lead to 5-0.
But Boston’s bullpen began to break down, and New York got right back in it. An Aaron Judge home run in the ninth brought them back within one run, but their comeback ended there. Here are three thoughts on Boston’s 5-4 win:
The Return of Chris Sale...
From April to July, Chris Sale gave one of the most electric performances of any starter in recent memory. From August to September, he pitched less frequently (shoulder inflammation) and less effectively (decreased velocity). Which Sale showed up for Game 1?
The former. Sale’s fastball velo sat just shy of 95 mph—a little short of his standard peak (97 mph), but certainly better than what he’d showed in his last few starts (92 mph). He’d been backing away from his slider as he struggled in August and September, but he threw the slider more than any other pitch on Friday. Through the first five innings, Sale allowed just three hits. But he got in trouble early in the sixth, allowing two singles, and manager Alex Cora was quick to go to the bullpen. In 5 1/3 innings, Sale struck out eight, walked two and yielded a pair of runs.
...and the Departure of Aaron Hicks
Aaron Hicks left the game in the top of the fourth inning after suffering what appeared to be a hamstring injury. There wasn’t any immediate word on what that might mean for him going forward—but if his ailment is serious, that’ll be seriously bad news for the Yankees. The 29-year-old had a career season, with an .833 OPS and 27 home runs. With 4.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference), he was one of baseball’s seven best outfielders this year.
Hicks’s replacement? At least in Game 1, it was Brett Gardner. The veteran had a relatively poor year at the plate, posting his first sub-.700 OPS, and simply isn’t on the same level as Hicks. Losing Hicks isn’t necessarily crucial, but New York’s margin for error here is slim, and a loss like this might not be one that the team can afford.
Boston’s Bullpen Breakdown
The Red Sox, like any 108-win team, don’t have any real flaws. But they sure do have a weakness, and it’s their bullpen. Boston’s relief corps particularly struggled in the second half—a 4.32 ERA (19th in baseball), 1.23 HR/9 (23rd) and 10.7% walk rate (27th). Their flaws were on full display tonight.
Sale was replaced in the sixth inning by Ryan Brasier, who allowed both of his inherited runners to score. Brasier was yanked after recording just one out—along with a single, wild pitch, and a walk—and left two more runners on. Next up was Brandon Workman, who began his outing with a four-pitch walk. That left him with two outs, bases loaded, and the go-ahead run at the plate in Gleyber Torres. He took care of it:
In the seventh inning, Workman was swapped for Matt Barnes, who allowed another run and left the bases loaded. With options running low for a close game in the eighth, Boston went with likely Game 3 starter Rick Porcello, who was pulled when he allowed an infield single after recording two quick outs. In came veteran closer Craig Kimbrel from the bullpen. Cora had been hesitant to use his closer across multiple frames in the regular season. Of 63 Kimbrel appearances, just five were multi-inning. Tonight’s attempt very nearly got him in trouble as Aaron Judge led the inning of with an opposite-field home run.
After Judge made it a one-run game, though, Kimbrel was lights-out. He struck out the heart of the order (Gardner, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit) to end the inning and the game. The bullpen may have been a burden, but it wasn’t back-breaking—at least, not tonight.