The Red Sox will play for the pennant. In its first postseason matchup with its long-time rival since 2004, Boston beat New York, 4–3, in Game 4 of the ALDS to knock out the Yankees at home and advance to the ALCS against defending champion Houston. Those teams will meet on Saturday night in Fenway Park to begin that battle, but before we turn our attention there, here are three thoughts off the Sox’ series-clinching win.
For Yankees fans, it was a baffling sight to make them wonder if they’d come unstuck in time: Manager Aaron Boone, watching a starter with diminished stuff give up runs as a fully rested super-bullpen remained dormant. It’s what sank New York in Game 3’s rout, and it’s what turned the tables in Game 4, as Boone once again was too slow with his hook.
The idea behind Boone’s disastrous long leash for Luis Severino in Game 3 was to have something in reserve for the next night behind CC Sabathia. The lefty’s days as an innings-gobbling warhorse are long behind him: At 38 and with a fastball that rarely tops 90 mph, he was no option to go deep into the night against a thumping Boston lineup full of righthanded hitters. With the season on the line, the expectation was that Boone would make a move at the first sign of trouble from his veteran.
Except yet again, when things went south, Boone stayed moored to the dugout railing. Sabathia ran into problems early, loading the bases in the first with two outs but escaping on an Ian Kinsler flyout that nearly made it over the leftfield wall. A quiet second followed, but by that point, Sabathia was already onto his second time through the order.
It didn’t take long for Boston to strike. Leading off the third, Andrew Benintendi was hit by a pitch and then went to third on a single by Steve Pearce. J.D. Martinez lashed a ball that was caught by Aaron Hicks for a sac fly to make it 1–0. A Xander Bogaerts groundout and a wild pitch later, Kinsler—who was benched for Game 3 but back in the lineup against a lefty—walloped a fastball over Brett Gardner’s head for an RBI double. He then scored on a blistered single by Eduardo Nuñez, who had also ridden the pine on Monday night, to push the Sox’ lead to three.
Throughout all of this, Boone refused to act. No reliever was ready behind Sabathia or even started warming until Kinsler’s at-bat, nor did anyone head out to the mound to buy time for the bullpen to get hot. For no discernible reason, in an elimination game, Boone opted to let his worst starter stay in to face the best offense in baseball instead of going to one of the half-dozen elite relievers in his bullpen, all of whom were well rested and capable of going multiple innings. He did so despite having been burned on this exact series of decisions not 24 hours earlier and then getting pilloried for it by fans and media alike.
It was an indefensible lack of urgency made worse by Boone’s non-action in Game 3. To top it all off, once Boone did go to his bullpen to start the fourth, it was predictably stellar, allowing just one run—on a Christian Vazquez solo homer into the short porch in right—over the final six innings. When the Yankees begin their end-of-season accounting, their rookie skipper’s painful delays in the final two games of the year will loom large.
Cora Pushes All The Right Buttons
Most managers wouldn’t have dared tinker with a lineup that had scored 16 runs or sit a player who hit for the cycle the night before, but that’s exactly what Cora—who remade half his batting order for Game 3—did. He benched Brock Holt, author of said cycle, for Kinsler and put Nuñez, who was rough at the plate and in the field in the first two games of the series, back into the mix in place of Rafael Devers, who got the scoring started for Boston on Monday. He also stuck with Vázquez behind the dish over Sandy León.
All that lineup fiddling worked once more. Kinsler and Nuñez drove in the second and third runs of the game, respectively, and Vázquez made it 4–0 with the first opposite-field homer of his career—a solo shot barely over the wall in right. That made up for an unusually quiet night from the heart of the lineup, as Mookie Betts, Benintendi, Martinez and Bogaerts combined to go 2-for-15 with six strikeouts.
Cora was also far better than Boone in managing his starter. Rick Porcello allowed only two hits and needed just 40 pitches to get through his first four innings. But in the fifth, the Yankees started zeroing in: Neil Walker lined out, Gary Sanchez doubled (after narrowly missing a home run), Gleyber Torres dribbled an infield single up the third-base line, and Gardner knocked in Sanchez on a sac fly to make it 4–1. After a long at-bat featuring another near-homer that went just foul, Hicks popped up for the third out, but Cora asked for no more: Despite five shutout frames on 65 pitches, Porcello was done.
The logic behind that move was simple, straightforward and smart. Porcello, who’d been struggling with his command as the night went on, would’ve been tasked with facing Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Giancarlo Stanton for a third time each had he stayed in for the sixth. Instead, Cora wisely went to his best non-Craig Kimbrel reliever, Matt Barnes, who pitched a 1-2-3 frame.
But the move that best exemplified Cora’s aggressive style came in the eighth, when he went to scheduled Game 5 starter and staff ace Chris Sale in relief. Aiming for the jugular, Cora bypassed his weaker bullpen options, as Barnes and Ryan Brasier, his two best setup choices, had already pitched the sixth and seventh, respectively. Sale rewarded his manager’s trust by blazing through Torres, pinch-hitter Andrew McCutchen and Hicks in order to set up Kimbrel.
Ironically, it was the conventional, easy and safe choice that almost cost Boston the game. Given a three-run lead, Kimbrel labored through a heart-stopping ninth, fighting his control the whole way. He walked Judge, gave up a single to Gregorius, struck out Stanton, and walked Luke Voit to load the bases with one out, then hit Walker with a pitch to force in a run and make it 4–2. Sanchez followed up by working the count to 3–2, then pushed a ball to the track in left—just a few feet shy of a walk-off grand slam—for a sac fly to cut the lead to one. But Kimbrel finally shut the door by getting Torres to tap a ball softly to Nuñez at third—who was saved by a brilliant stretch from Steve Pearce at first and a replay review to confirm the out—to finish it.
The ALCS Is Set
The upcoming clash for the American League pennant will be nothing short of epic. These are easily the two best teams in the Junior Circuit if not all of baseball: Boston and Houston finished the regular season Nos. 1 and 2 in wins with 108 and 103, respectively, and each boasts a deep lineup studded with MVP-caliber hitters; a rotation with aces galore; and some fearsome late-inning options.
Both will also enter the series with plenty of momentum. The Astros easily dispatched of the Indians in a three-game sweep, while the Sox righted the ship after a shaky pair of games at Fenway. Not enough can be said about the way Cora’s team bounced back, holding the Yankees to four runs in 18 innings—and, amazingly, no homers— in the raucous Bronx and getting much-improved performances from a beleaguered relief corps.
From here, the edge would seem to belong to Houston, which has the better bullpen and a relentless lineup that’s tougher top to bottom, plus the twin presences of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole on the mound. The Red Sox, though, have homefield advantage. Either way, this will be a treat for fans. Verlander versus Sale, Betts versus Jose Altuve, Martinez versus the team that let him go, Cora versus his old mentor in A.J. Hinch … get ready for what will surely be a thriller.