By Brian Garland
The Red Sox are moving on to the American League Championship Series, after a takedown of their arch-rival New York Yankees on the way.
As expected of the league’s top-five home run hitting teams (the Yankees set the single-season record), the bats were flying.
Even when Boston built leads in Games 1 and 4, the Yankees battled back with their dangerous lineup, featuring Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and rookie Gleyber Torres.
The usual suspects Chris Sale, J.D Martinez and Mookie Betts performed at their peaks, but the heroics of Rick Porcello, Brock Holt, Nathan Eovaldi and Christian Vazquez helped the Red Sox pull away in Games 1, 3 and 4.
The Red Sox owned the best home record at Fenway Park in the regular season, but their performance carried to New York as well with a blowout 16-1 win in Game 3 and a close 4-3 victory to seal the series in Game 4.
The Red Sox dealt most of their damage to New York’s starting pitching, knocking Yankees ace Luis Severino, Red Sox killer CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka out of the game earlier than they planned.
Since New York only led in the blowout Yankees win at Fenway in Game 2, Boston kept New York from controlling the game with the Yankee bullpen lineup of Zach Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances.
This was an unfortunate series for Boston’s bullpen, but the offense tacked on enough runs to handle the bleeding. New York’s lineup could not handle the velocity matchup of Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Barnes, although they achieved great success against David Price, Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Brasier.
While velocity is abundant in Boston’s pitching staff, control is not. Kimbrel and Brasier offered a frightening amount of walks to Yankee hitters.
Rick Porcello’s short relief appearance in Game 1 and his dominant five inning, one earned run start in Game 4, speak to his value moving forward in the postseason. Porcello did not issue a walk in five and two-thirds innings pitched, one of few Red Sox pitchers with this distinction.
While the statistics sheet may suggest that this series prioritized hitting, defense was another important factor. Yankees slugging outfielder Aaron Judge took away free bases on would-be doubles with his arm. Also in right field, Mookie Betts made a number of great catches on low-percentage plays to take away hits.
Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and second baseman Ian Kinsler made challenging split-second decisions in the infield that took away infield singles and turned extra outs for the Red Sox. Boston first basemen Steve Pearce and Mitch Moreland stretched as far as possible to
handle wild throws and make outs in the nick of time.
Behind the plate, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez kept everything in their chests. When Boston’s bullpen was at its wildest with pitches, Leon stopped everything from getting behind him in the late innings of Game 1.
The poor defensive play by Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez granted the Red Sox some excellent opportunities. Passed balls and lack of effort by Sanchez resulted in extra bases for the Red Sox. The usually savvy Red Sox were relentless on the basepaths all series.
Alex Cora’s attack plan included hit-and-runs and some gutsy stolen bases, all in the name of putting extra pressure on New York’s pitcher and catcher. Sanchez was picked apart by Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi. They scored from first, they stole second at will, and they took the extra base on singles whenever they could.
New York’s Aaron Judge was a major problem for the Red Sox, but his damage was reduced by Giancarlo Stanton after him, who went 0-for-4 with the game on the line in Game 4, even striking out in the ninth inning with two runners on and one out.
J.D. Martinez was a nuisance for the Yankees at the plate, batting .357 on the series with a key three-run home run in Game 1. Martinez’s patient hitting approach got New York’s starting pitchers in trouble early in games. He walked twice and drove in five runs in the series on four runs.
The Red Sox used ace pitcher and Game 1 starter Chris Sale in 8th inning relief in Game 4, and this is one move that best summarizes Alex Cora’s approach as a manager. With a chance to close the door on the Yankees up 4-1 on the road, Cora went with his ace, who pitched a scoreless 8th inning. He later went with his closer Craig Kimbrel to disappointing result, but these were his best two arms and he stuck with them to protect the lead.
Although the Red Sox would not play again until Saturday if they won Tuesday in New York, pitching Chris Sale in relief is not a move most managers would make, as they would be cautious of their ace’s freshness heading into the next series.
Sure that’s something to be mindful of, but you manage to win this game this week, and worry about next week after.
Swinging at the first pitch is a growing trend in baseball and the Red Sox made it a staple of this series. The Red Sox make their own luck with aggressiveness at the plate and on the basepaths, but they don’t miss when the opportunity presents itself. Alex Cora preached this all season long and the Red Sox lived up to it thus far.
Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez has made his millions by studying pitchers, preparing for the right pitch given the information available, and parking the ball 400 feet into the bleachers. Only once in a given plate appearance will most pitchers sneak a pitch over the middle, but that’s all Martinez needs. As long as he knows what’s coming, he’ll drive it.
Naturally, manager Alex Cora’s aggressive Red Sox will be up against the equally aggressive Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series. As the former bench coach under Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora’s plan will be put to the test against the team that taught him his tricks.
The Astros defeated Boston in the postseason Division Series in 2017, but these teams have changed since then.
For Houston, infielder Alex Bregman is no longer just another guy, he is an MVP candidate with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs in the regular season. The Astros also traded for Gerrit Cole in the offseason, who is now a third ace on the staff with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander.
For Boston, the addition of J.D. Martinez in the cleanup spot of their lineup makes each hitter before and after, that much more dangerous. The starting rotation is healthier aside from Chris Sale, and no Red Sox starter threw over 200 innings this season, compared to two (Chris Sale, Rick Porcello) last season. Nathan Eovaldi is a new addition to the rotation and pitched well against New York.
Another key difference, home-field advantage belongs to Boston this year, and the first two games will be at Fenway Park. This gives the Red Sox the best chance to avoid an early 2-0 game deficit, as they did against the Yankees this year in this ALDS.
Four teams remain in the postseason, and this winner of this ALCS will advance to the World Series. Stay tuned.
Brian Garland is the Sports Editor for The Comment.