Friday’s Game 3 lingered over Saturday’s Game 4, not only because of its significance (a contest for the ages) or its recency (it had, after all, stretched until the early hours of Saturday) but because of its direct impact on strategy. Both teams had exhausted their benches and bullpens, with a total of just four players left untouched.
Boston’s original plan had been to start Nathan Eovaldi in Game 4, but he was called instead for six innings of remarkable work in relief in Game 3; the team’s only fresh pitchers were Chris Sale, projected to start Game 5, and Drew Pomeranz, a late addition to the roster who’d been absent earlier in the postseason. Manager Alex Cora admitted after the game that he wasn’t yet sure who would start later in the day for Game 4. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had managed to preserve its originally planned starter for Game 4, Rich Hill, but its only other unaffected pitcher was Game 2’s starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu. There was a struggle ahead for both clubs: In a postseason environment that places so much emphasis on bullpen management and fixing the perfect matchup, neither team had any fresh options.
All that might sound like the ideal setting for a slugfest. Most of Game 4, however, was the opposite. Eduardo Rodriguez, who’d pitched to just one batter in Game 3, was on the mound for the Red Sox. He and Hill kept the game scoreless into the sixth, when Los Angeles jumped on Rodriguez to go up 4-0. But Boston didn’t waste any time in coming back. Beginning in the seventh, they leapt into action—scoring nine runs in the final three innings to secure victory. Now, they’re just one win away from the World Series.
Here are three thoughts on Boston’s 9-6 win:
Hill and Rodriguez wouldn’t have seemed like the duo to combine for more innings than any other pair of starting pitchers in this World Series. With 12 innings, however—5 ⅔ for Rodriguez, 6 ⅓ for Hill—they were.
Rodriguez had pitched sparingly in the playoffs so far—4 ⅓ innings across Boston’s 12 games entering tonight—and had been limited to the bullpen late in the regular season, too. His last start came on September 20; even then, he hadn’t made it out of the fourth inning. In Game 4, though, he was strong up until the very end. Through five innings, he allowed only three baserunners on two hits. In the sixth, though, he reached his breaking point; manager Alex Cora made the decision to leave him with in to face Yasiel Puig, and a three-run home run was the end of his night.
Hill, meanwhile, was dazzling. He’d given up just one hit all night when the decision was made to pull him, after he’d issued a lead-off walk in the seventh inning while the middle of the order approached for the third time. The 38-year-old really only has two pitches, the fastball and the curve, but when they’re working, he doesn’t need anything else—and they were really working in Game 4.
Both teams needed a solid outing from their starters tonight. They delivered.
Dingers and Misplays and Runs, Oh My
In Game 3, every single run came from either an error or a home run. The pattern held true for the first eight runs of Game 4.
With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the sixth, Cody Bellinger hit what looked very much like the groundball for an inning-ending double play. fielded by first baseman Steve Pearce, who fired it back to catcher Christian Vázquez to get Enrique Hernández, who was advancing home from third. Vázquez fielded it smoothly to record the out and, in one fluid motion, tried to send it back to Pearce to nail Bellinger at first. He missed, leaving the runners to advance as the ball skittered into foul territory:
Yasiel Puig was up next; the ball was gone; the bat was flipped. The Dodgers were up, 4-0:
The Red Sox began to strike back in the next inning, with a three-run shot from Mitch Moreland. In the eighth, they tied it, with a solo home run from Steve Pearce:
Boston finally broke the pattern with a bit of small ball in the ninth. After Brock Holt led off the inning with a double, Rafael Devers scored him with a single, putting the Red Sox up 5-4. And a bit later, with two outs, they offered a little more proof of how remarkably good they are when two men are down. Mookie Betts was intentionally walked, and Andrew Benintendi singled to load the bases. Pearce doubled to bring them all home, transforming a one-run lead into a four-run one, and Xander Bogaerts eventually singled to bring him home as well.
The Dodgers turned back to the long ball for their comeback attempt, but it wasn’t enough. A two-run home run in the ninth inning from Hernandez cut the deficit to three, but there was nothing else from there.
The decision of when to pull a starter who’s dealing is always a little fraught; Game 4’s bullpen situation made it even more so. Hill had been cruising into the seventh, even as he worked through the order for the third time with a pitch count sitting at 91. Manager Dave Roberts wasn’t willing to give him any more of a leash, though, and replaced him with Scott Alexander, who promptly issued a walk on four pitches. Roberts wasn’t about to take any more chances with him, and swapped him out with L.A.'s most beleaguered reliever of late: Ryan Madson, who’d inherited five runners in the series so far and had allowed all five of them to score. He inherited two more here, and there was nothing different about the result:
After Madson finished out the inning, Roberts made another bold choice. He turned to his closer, Kenley Jansen, for the six-out save. It’s relatively rare for him—he’d gone two full innings only once in the regular season—and the pressure of that workload was compounded by the fact that he’d pitched two innings last night, when he blew the save in Game 3. This, too, didn’t work out as planned: Jansen allowed the game-tying home run to Pearce. For the ninth, Roberts was left to look elsewhere, beginning with Dylan Floro. When he unraveled, he turned to Alex Wood and then Kenta Maeda.
A manager’s bullpen choices are more often judged on outcome rather than process; Roberts’ process here does have a defense, if not an especially compelling one. Madson has faltered in each outing in the World Series, but he capably handled many similar ones in the NLDS and NLCS. Jansen among the best closers in baseball. There are plenty of valid questions to ask of the process, but there’s substance here, too. More urgently, meanwhile, there are no questions to ask of the outcome. It’s been anything but what they’ve wanted, and it’s put them one run from elimination.