- The Red Sox have scored an uncanny amount of runs with two outs this October. Boston hitters explained the approach that's fueled their World Series run.
BOSTON — Spend enough time in baseball clubhouses and you’ll hear the phrase “pass the baton,” a reference to the idea that a hitter should do his job and trust the next guy to do his, rather than swing for the fences. Sometimes this conversation is eyewash (another good baseball term, meaning phony for the purpose of impressing observers); everyone wants to hit home runs. But among the Red Sox, who on Wednesday rode their two-out dominance to a 4–2 Game 2 win and 2–0 World Series lead, it’s a rallying cry—and also their favorite inside joke.
“Pass the tongue!” they yell to each other before games and during games and after games. “Pass the tongue!”
Game 2 of the ALDS, a loss that tied the series at one game apiece, was a demoralizing affair in which the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka threw 30 balls but walked only one. Some of the veteran players felt their young teammates growing anxious, pressing. So when the Red Sox held their daily hitter’s meeting before Game 3, Dominican third baseman Eduardo Núñez spoke up.
“We don’t want to get down in New York,” he told them. “The fans are unbelievably crazy. When we see Luis Severino, we need to be patient. If we walk, if we single, we can score. We need to pass the baton.” He mispronounced the last word (read: tongue), but his teammates seemed to be processing his message. Then quadrilingual shortstop Xander Bogaerts broke in. “F----- Núñez, man!” he said, choking with laughter. “Your f------ English, man! It’s unbelievable!”
Whether because of what Núñez said or because of how he said it, Boston walked eight times, hit 13 singles and scored 16 runs. And thus a catchphrase was born.
The Red Sox have scored 35 of their 68 runs this postseason with two outs. It has reached the point, Bogaerts admitted after the game, at which two men go down and he begins to wonder what the rest of the lineup will do. “Two outs is our time,” he said.
On Wednesday night, it was their time twice. In the second inning, Bogaerts doubled with one out. Third baseman Rafael Devers struck out, but second baseman Ian Kinsler lined an 0–1 cutter to leftfield to score the game’s first run. Three innings later, Kinsler grounded out. Centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. popped to shortstop. Then the fun began.
Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu missed strike three to catcher Christian Vázquez by about two inches; it was so close that Ryu leaned toward the dugout. Vázquez—he of the regular-season .404 OPS to rightfield—decided to choke up and try to slap the ball to right. He dropped it perfectly in front of Yasiel Puig in rightfield, who was playing deep. Rightfielder Mookie Betts singled up the middle. Leftfielder Andrew Benintendi worked an eight-pitch, three-mound-visit walk to load the bases. First baseman Steve Pearce drew another walk, off new pitcher Ryan Madson, to tie the game, 2-2. Madson had struck out DH J.D. Martinez with the bases loaded in Game 1, but he admitted before the game that it wasn’t a fun experience. “You know you're in a pit with a rattlesnake,” Madson said. “One bad move, and you'll get bit.”
The night before, Martinez had noted Madson seemed a bit wild, so he had let the pitcher dictate their encounter. Not this time. Trust your eyes, he told himself. If it’s a ball, it’s a ball, but don’t go up there being passive.
The first pitch was a ball, inside. The second was a four-seamer a few inches closer to the plate. Martinez pulled his hands inside the ball and dumped it into rightfield, where Puig was again too deep to make a play. Two runs scored. The Red Sox never looked back.
After the inning, Boston’s hitters discussed how successful they’d been at staying alive. After the game, dressed in a warm coat against the 32° wind chill, Martinez waxed philosophic.
“To me grinding out a good at-bat is pretty much fighting,” he said. “And it's not trying to do too much with pitches, just finding a way to spoil a good pitcher's pitches, really. If a pitcher goes up there and he's throwing a ball and it's a breaking ball down and away or a fastball up and in, a perfect pitcher's pitch, and you're able to just foul it off and stay alive in the at-bat—just keep grinding, keep working through the at-bat and hoping for that mistake that he's going to make. And if he doesn't, then you walk. And if he does, then you hit the ball and you have a chance that way.”
Manager Alex Cora refers to what his team puts together as humble at-bats. As early as spring training he asked hitting coach Tim Hyers to challenge the players so they could practice fighting. They set the pitching machine to spit out fiery fastballs and filthy breaking balls, and asked hitters to imagine themselves in different scenarios. Leading off the inning. One out and a man on third. And, of course, two outs.
So why is this team so good in the highest-stress situation? The players are unanimous that the best two-out approach is no two-out approach. “Just put good at-bats together,” said Pearce. “Don’t get caught up in the moment.” Ideally, they say, you would forget altogether how many outs there are and focus on doing what you do. Focus on passing the tongue.
The idea is to “win pitches,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. “Sometimes you see two outs on the board and you see two strikes against you, it can be a defeatist mindset, but if you stay positive, and you keep grinding out and winning every pitch, and you don’t give up, he might make that mistake with two outs, and that’s where the rally starts and it changes the whole game.”
The trick to hitting with two outs, as it turns out, is to remember you have 27 of them.