Baseball has a way of delivering humblings. This isn’t meant to point out even the immortal Kiké Hernández has made outs in half his playoff plate appearances, true as that is. It’s more a reflection on how quickly we can go from feeling like we’re holding the winning lotto ticket to pawing at our pockets, befuddled where it could’ve went.
For the Yankees, it never got better than Sept. 26, the end of their first Fenway Park sweep since 2015. For the Rays, munching popcorn in their dugout during Game 1 of the Division Series was made real ancient, real fast. These are impossible things to read in the moment, of course, even if we can’t stop trying.
These Red Sox have consistently reminded of that since March, never quite exactly what they seemed. A thought worth at least noting, because boy this whole thing is starting to feel like it’s falling together perfectly. Again.
Like in a couple days time, the Astros will be flying back home by themselves, Carlos Correa’s imaginary watch the latest snapshot on the Red Sox wall.
“Today was as close as we’ve been to a perfect game, to be honest with you,” Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters in the wee hours of Tuesday, Fenway Park still delirious after a 12-3 win put Boston up, 2-1, in its best-of-seven. “We pitched well, played great defense, we ran the bases. We were very aggressive in a lot of aspects, so tonight is one of those that you feel good about it.”
Cora immediately pivoted to turning the page, a baseball lifer keenly aware nothing is ever so good, so good as it appears until you’re soaked in champagne. Nick Pivetta is scheduled to start Game 4 for him, the same Pivetta who roared through the Rays as a starter turned stroke-of-genius reliever. He’ll be opposed by Zack Greinke, who Houston manager Dusty Baker stressed would go “as long as he can go.”
Given COVID-19 and neck soreness have limited the former ace to 3⅓ innings in the last month, your guess is as good as mine. Not that Greinke has a high bar to clear.
Without ace Lance McCullers — who had the AL’s only six-inning start in these playoffs prior to Eduardo Rodriguez joining him Monday — Houston’s starters have lasted 5⅓ innings in three games and allowed 14 runs.
“It’s kind of like Groundhog Day,” Baker told reporters. “A reoccurring nightmare where you hope to get some innings out of these guys.”
The numbers are absurd, as much for their timing as their substance. Three grand slams in a span of five chances with the bases loaded. Twenty home runs in eight games — one better than Boston’s best eight-game stretch of the season (in late August), and 11 better than any other team playing this month.
But that’s October, I suppose. In the National League, Atlanta’s up two games on the Dodgers because they’re 3 for 8 with runners in scoring position and LA is 2 for 18. On this side?
The team that was getting mocked about the Curse of Robert Andino exactly three weeks ago Tuesday morning, that saw 34 pitches in its final 12 outs in a loss to Baltimore with its season on the brink, is two home wins from the World Series.
“We’ve got a collective group game plan, and we want to execute it with every at-bat, every pitch as much as we can,” Christian Arroyo told reporters after Game 3. “The postseason, you can have tense moments, and the other thing we’ve been trying to do is stay loose. A.C. [Cora] has been harping on it a lot and telling us to be us.
“We’ve been doing this all season.”
This is the white-hat side of what they’ve been doing all season. On Monday, the Red Sox swung at 81 of the 160 pitches they saw, befitting their place as one of the league’s most free-swinging teams. To be clear, they made their good swings count, but Houston actually had more hard-hit balls (calculated as a 95-mph exit velocity or above) than the Red Sox did on Monday.
No matter. They don’t decide wins and losses by expected batting average. Same as they don’t give the championship piece of metal to the team that wins the most games. Just the last one.
The Red Sox are a momentum team, and they’ve fed off each other, good or bad, like few groups in recent memory all season. Two games running, they’ve buried Houston in a 9-0 hole, and gotten into a bullpen with no healthy starters left to supplement it. On Monday, it was Alex Verdugo’s 11-pitch at-bat in the second, building off a sneaky good night in Game 2, that got the rock rolling down the hill.
That six-run rally, of course, is a one-run rally if a bad hop doesn’t keep José Altuve from turning a double play on Arroyo. There are never any guarantees things play out exactly the same, but the 34-pitch fourth inning and the three-run homer against Rodriguez look a lot different if it’s just 4-0.
Which has to be the point here, given it feels like the stars are aligning. These Astros are still impossibly dangerous. These Astros are still close, just as the Red Sox were after those awful opening 10 innings against the Rays.
Don’t wake ’em up. Don’t give a group that relishes being the villain any extra motivation, even if they don’t need it. Not in a razor-thin series like this one.
But the flip side to worrying is relishing just how good this all feels. Even as the stakes grow higher by the second, it’s all still finding that lotto ticket in the winter coat you yanked from storage.
Two wins from two games at Fenway Park, rocking like it’s 2004 again. Where Boston hasn’t lost since that Yankees sweep. Where the pressure ratchets up like few places in sports.
Baker was asked before Game 3 what he made of Boston so clearly outperforming expectations. Even a guy with 50 years in the major league game didn’t entirely know what to make of it.
“I don’t know what [the experts] missed,” Baker told reporters. “They didn’t know how Kiké was going to perform. They didn’t know how J.D. Martinez was going to perform. I don’t think they knew about Verdugo. They probably didn’t know a lot. That’s why you play the season.
“I don’t think anybody probably knew how much heart they had.”
It’s a thing you say about unexpected champions when you’re watching them dance past you.
That’s a reality that somehow, someway, is just six wins off in the distance.
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