Monday, October 15, 2018

ALCS Game 2: Houston Astros at Red Sox (October 14, 2018)

It was a great night to be a Boston sports fan. The Patriots had the Sunday night game and were taking on the undefeated Chiefs at home, but before that was the more important of the night's two events: game two of the ALCS. After looking outclassed and overwhelmed against the poised Astros in game one, Boston needed to approach game two as a must-win scenario. With the next three games of the series in Houston, the Sox could not go on the road down two games to none and feel good about their chances. After losing a mediocre Chris Sale start (and maybe now we know why: it was announced during game two that he's in the hospital with a stomach virus), all eyes turned to David Price and his abysmal career postseason record to salvage a split. Regardless of how Price pitched it wouldn't amount to much if the Boston bats didn't wake up, but thankfully the team got enough of both on a night when they desperately needed them.

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Before going any further, I want to just say that no, David Price wasn't great and no, he didn't come close to exorcising his postseason demons with his performance in game two. With that being said, he wasn't awful and two of the four runs charged to him weren't his fault (looking at you, Xander Bogaerts). The Sox went for the quick strike and scored first in the bottom of the first when Andrew Benintendi followed up Mookie Betts' leadoff double with an RBI single to make it 1-0 after just five Gerrit Cole pitches. With the bases loaded later in the inning, Rafael Devers singled to drive Benintendi in and it looked like Boston was going to blow the game wide open and knock Houston starter Cole out early, but they squandered their chance and settled for two runs. In the top of the inning George Springer doubled down the right field line with two outs to drive in Carlos Correa and Martin Maldonado to tie the game, but I don't put those runs squarely on Price's shoulders. Prior to that, Xander took his sweet time with a routine grounder that should have been the third out of the inning and instead lengthened it for Houston. You can't give away outs in any game, but especially not in October and against a good team like the Astros who will make you pay (which they did). The next two runs surrendered were on Price when he gave up a two run home run to Marwin Gonzalez in the third to put Houston up 4-2. It seemed like the same old David Price and just took the wind out of everyone's sails; everyone except the Red Sox, that is. They came storming back in the bottom of the inning led off by Steve Pearce who doubled. They'd eventually load the bases with two outs for Jackie Bradley who ripped a double into the corner that glanced off of the Green Monster. He was aided with some luck from quirky Fenway Park as the ball hit the ground and then bounced up onto a ridge on the side wall and rolled toward the infield as Gonzalez gave chase. That allowed all three runners to score and gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead. Boston got another strange run in the seventh when Mookie Betts walked and then advanced to second, third, and home all on passed balls. That gave the Sox a much needed insurance run without the benefit of a single hit! It still felt too close to comfort until the eighth when, with Devers and Mitch Moreland on base, Mookie smacked a double to center field to drive in a run and extend the lead to 7-4. Craig Kimbrel came in to close out the game in the ninth and I think I can speak for all Red Sox fans when I say that I prayed we wouldn't get a repeat of his performance from game four of the Yankees series. For a moment it looked like it'd be as easy as 1-2-3 as he got the first two outs in short order. Then, he gave up a double to Springer and a single to Jose Altuve which cut the lead to 7-5. With the dangerous Alex Bregman coming to the plate representing the tying run it looked like it might fall apart and it nearly did, but Kimbrel induced a fly out on a ball that had Benintendi with his back flat against the Monster in order to catch it. That was the ball game as the Sox got a series-tying 7-5 win.

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Before I look at the hitting, I want to focus on the pitching. Price went 4.2 innings and gave up four runs on five hits. He did strike out four but he also walked four and while he wasn't as good as he needed to be, he wasn't as bad as it looks at first glance either. As mentioned above, the first two runs he gave up should never have happened had the inning ended with that play to Bogaerts. Price wasn't great, but he kept the game close enough for the Sox to come back and win it. He still needs to be better (a LOT better) in the postseason and I'm not sure if that can ever happen, but for now it was sufficient. The narrative that he was terrible in this game is lazy at best and inaccurate at worst. He was mediocre, yes, but far from terrible (see: game two of the ALDS). The bullpen was fantastic and again exceeded any and all expectations I had for them. Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and a particularly filthy Rick Porcello combined to throw 3.1 innings of no hit ball in relief with only one walk (Brasier). It wasn't until Kimbrel in the ninth that Houston threatened and scored. As for the hitting, it looks like this might have finally been the game where Mookie broke out of his career postseason funk. He was 2-4 with two runs scored, an RBI, and a walk; hopefully he's shaken out of the postseason doldrums he's been in because as he goes, so usually go the Red Sox. Everyone contributed in this one apart from Christian Vazquez (0-4), Ian Kinsler (0-4 as he continues to have a miserable postseason apart from his RBI double in game four against New York), and JD Martinez. JD is an interesting case because since game two of the Yankees series he hasn't done much of anything at the plate. He seems to be waving at pitches and pressing; it's sure frustrating watching him right now. He was 0-4 with two strikeouts in this game and the team really needs him to start producing if they want to have a good chance to win the series. Bradley had the most key hit of the game with his three-RBI double and Devers went 2-3 and played solid defense at third. He should get the bulk of the playing time there over Eduardo Nunez for the remainder of this series just for his bat alone...we'll see if Cora finally decides to do the same with Brock Holt at second in place of the unproductive Kinsler.

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The series now shifts to Houston for the next three games. Game three on Tuesday will pit Nathan Eovaldi against Dallas Keuchel in what should be an excellent pitching match up. If the Red Sox can continue to hit and minimize their mistakes, they've got a good chance of getting the series back to Boston for game six. There is no margin for error against the defending champions so the Sox will need to play nearly perfect baseball in order to win this series, but if they play the way they did in game two then I like their chances.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

ALCS Game 1: Houston Astros at Red Sox (October 13, 2018)

After the euphoria of eliminating the Yankees on Tuesday, I think I speak for all Red Sox fans when I say that I couldn't wait for the ALCS to start. By winning two straight games on the road at Yankee Stadium and dominating the Yankees in the ALDS, the Sox showed that they weren't regular season frauds and that they were a legitimate powerhouse team. However, we all knew that the defending champion Houston Astros were now in the way and would be an even tougher test than the Yankees for numerous reasons, not least of which that they've been playing their best baseball of the season over the last month. With a marquee match up of starters Chris Sale and Justin Verlander facing off, game one looked like it was going to be October baseball at its best. What we got instead was one of the strangest and most frustrating Red Sox games of the entire season.

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From the outset, Chris Sale did not look sharp in this one. I can't abide by the fans who think it was because of his one inning relief stint near the end of game four against the Yankees on Tuesday; he only threw fourteen pitches and then had three full days of rest before game one of the ALCS. Perhaps it was the pressure of the moment (this game was the biggest game everyone on the team not named Dustin Pedroia has played in) or the fact that game one was almost seen as "must win" with the uncertainty of David Price starting game two, but Sale just didn't have it. His velocity was down and his control was lacking. On a night when they needed him to go deep and eat some quality innings, he only lasted four innings. True, he only gave up two runs on one hit and he did strike out five, but he also walked four (which is a LOT for him) and just wasn't himself. Whether it was nerves, his shoulder, or something else it was exactly what the Red Sox didn't need. After a shaky second inning (where he was admittedly hurt but some atrocious defense from Eduardo Nunez...more on this later), he actually settled down and started mowing down Astros hitters. However, by then he'd thrown a Pomeranz-esque eighty-six pitches and was lifted from the game. The aforementioned damage in the second inning came when Sale, who had gotten two quick outs, put two men on via a walk and a hit by pitch. George Springer singled via a grounder toward Nunez that went under his glove. The replay showed that he may have stumbled on his way to field it, but an inning ending out turned into a two run single. Neither team was hitting much in this game and heading into the fifth, both teams only had a single hit to their names. It was Verlander's turn to melt down in the fifth when he suddenly lost his control after looking otherworldly to that point. He walked three in the inning, including Mitch Moreland to drive in the first Boston run of the night. With only one out, it looked like the Sox were poised to break it wide open, but on the very first pitch he saw, Mookie Betts swung and grounded to Alex Bregman who threw Nunez out to get the force at home. It was a terrible piece of hitting from Betts who has frankly looked absolutely awful at the plate this entire postseason. I love the guy, he's one of my favorite players and I want him on the Red Sox for many, many years to come, but he's looked lost at the plate this month and that at bat crystallized it all. Why the hell would you swing at the first pitch when the pitcher has literally walked three in a row immediately before you? It was terrible mental baseball from a player who is usually one of the smartest baseball minds in the game. Andrew Benintendi was up next and Verlander uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Jackie Bradley to score and tie the game. Benintendi then continued his miserable night (he finished 0-4 with three strikeouts) by getting rung up on an awful call by the home plate ump (who also had a lousy night for both teams). Benintendi slammed his bat and helmet down and justifiably argued it, as did Alex Cora who ended up getting tossed between innings. In the sixth inning, Carlos Correa singled off of Joe Kelly to drive in a run and give Houston a 3-2 lead and while that's how it stayed for the next few innings, it never felt as though the Sox seriously threatened. They spent the entire night flailing away at the plate and looked like they were pressing. One thing I did not like was how whiny and argumentative they were with the umpire all night; while he did blow a fair number of calls, it was bad for both teams and yet Houston comported themselves in a way Boston did not. Even players who are normally above that got into the act, most egregiously JD Martinez. He was rung up on a blown check swing (he didn't go) strike three that got past catcher Martin Maldonado, but instead of running to first base he stood there with his bat under his arms arguing with the ump. By the time he finally decided to run, Maldonado had the ball and easily threw him out at first. Cora's ejection ended up hurting the team when bench coach Ron Roenicke decided to put in Brandon "Blowout" Workman in the game. As I've said all season, Workman only belongs in blowout wins or losses, and this game showed yet again why that is. In the ninth, he gave up a solo homer to Josh Reddick and then a few batters later, a three run blast to Yuli Gurriel that put the game completely out of reach at 7-4. That's how the game ended and with that, the Red Sox completed one of the most disgraceful and embarrassing losses of the season. When the best part of the night is inadvertently hitting Joe West with an errant throw down to second base, you know it was a night to forget.

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Game one was seen as almost a must win with David Price starting game two and I'll say it right now: if the Red Sox play the way they did in game one, this is going to be a very short series. They looked over matched, overwhelmed, and under prepared, almost as though they figured the Astros would just roll over after seeing how the Sox dispatched the Yankees (remember, the Astros went one better by completely obliterating the Indians in a laugher of a sweep). The Sox spent the entire night whining and arguing calls and had petulant body language that I'd expect to see from Little Leaguers, not grown professionals. Truthfully, it was the first time all season where I've disliked this team. Meanwhile, the Astros looked poised, calm, and in control from the very beginning. They only outhit the Sox 5-3, but they looked to be in a different class from wire to wire. The three Boston hits came from Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Steve Pearce but all were singles and no one on this team did any damage; remember, their two runs were via an RBI walk and a wild pitch. Defensively, Eduardo Nunez was directly responsible for the first three Houston runs as not only did he stumble on Springer's hit, but he threw a ball away and also muffed an easy double play ball when he dropped a ball on the transfer after cleanly fielding a sharp grounder. The night was just a disaster all around. (Ten walks and three hit batters from Red Sox pitchers aren't going to cut it). I hope that the team got it out of their systems and come back ready to play in game two. This series now hinges on David Price's start tonight and if that doesn't terrify you, it should. It's time to see what the 2018 Red Sox are made of, all of them.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Van Halen Rising



Let me get it out of the way here at the beginning by saying that I am a relatively new Van Halen fan. As a child of the 1980s and 1990s I of course knew who they were and had heard a ton of their songs on the radio and MTV (back when MTV actually played music), but I never considered myself a fan. In fact, at times I was openly hostile to them. I thought David Lee Roth was a clown, Eddie Van Halen a great but overrated guitarist, Alex Van Halen an average drummer, and Michael Anthony a barely competent bassist. And Van Hagar? I couldn't stand the power ballad cheese that oozed out of my speakers once Sammy Hagar replaced Roth. I had heard their Roth-era material so much that I knew all of the songs and words but just didn't like the band at all. Then something funny happened: as I got older, I started to find myself enjoying the Roth-era stuff more and more. When it came on the radio, I'd turn it up and listen and sing along. I started listening to the Roth albums over and over and realized "holy moley, this is great stuff!" As a guitarist, I always appreciated Eddie's influence but it wasn't I really listen to him attentively that I realized he was more than just a two-hand tapping shredder. There was a lot more to Roth's lyrics and vocals than his consummate entertainer persona let on, and the rhythm section was tight and solid and rocked hard...those two guys were great musicians. From there the floodgates opened and I became a huge Van Halen fan (I still don't like Van Hagar, though). A short while before I finally had this epiphany, I had come across a writer named Greg Renoff who was working on a book about Van Halen's prehistory entitled Van Halen Rising. We mutually followed each other on Twitter some years ago and I kept an interested eye on his project. The book was released near the end of 2015 and over the ensuing couple of years I saw nothing but effusive praise for it. Finally, this year I decided that I needed to read this book. I was hungry to learn anything and everything I could about the band's original Roth-era career and learning about the band's very earliest beginnings through their legendary backyard party and club days seemed like the perfect place to start. With the "original six-pack"albums (as coined by Eddie himself) as my soundtrack, I set out to read Van Halen Rising and see what the fuss was all about.

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Most books that deal with a band's prehistory typically fall into two camps: they're either hastily dashed off and just pluck facts from primary sources, or they're extensively and exhaustively researched and detailed (think Mark Lewisohn's first volume of his Beatles biography, All These Years: Tune In). Van Halen Rising falls into the latter category. Renoff spent years researching this book and interviewing numerous people who were actually there from the very beginning as a part of the band's story. These even include Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, and original Mammoth/Van Halen bassist Mark Stone. Because of the richness of his sources as well as the numerous other print and interview sources he cites, Renoff is able to paint a richly detailed and vibrant account of the band starting from the very beginning. Alex and Edward Van Halen were young boys when they and their parents emigrated from the Netherlands to the USA and settled in Pasadena, California. Growing up in a musical family (their father was a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist and their mother was a singer) and bitten by the music bug in the 1960s after hearing the Beatles and other British Invasion bands, the brothers began to take piano lessons. In addition, Eddie started playing drums and Alex the guitar. They realized they both preferred each other's instruments and made their famous switch. After going through the usual succession of bands in junior high and high school, the brothers ended up in a power trio format (emulating Eddie's beloved Cream) with Eddie handling vocal duties. Another local kid, David Lee Roth, tried to join the band as their singer in the early 1970s but was rejected after a couple of disastrous auditions. Information like this was brand new to me and it was only one of the myriad new morsels of information unearthed by Renoff in his research. Eventually Roth improved his singing enough and, with the leverage of owning a high quality PA that the band desperately needed, he was asked to join. After jettisoning original bass player Mark Stone in favor of Michael Anthony, the classic Van Halen lineup was complete by 1974.

This is a great box set of all of the David Lee Roth-era albums remastered for only $22! I highly recommend it...this is what I bought to complete my Van Halen collection.

Van Halen Rising then traces the band's trajectory as they became legends in the Los Angeles area for playing wild backyard parties and relentlessly gigging at the smallest, most obscure, and sleaziest clubs around before they were able to break through onto the Sunset Strip. Along the way they became adept at playing covers of songs by everyone from Black Sabbath, Cream, and Led Zeppelin to the Who, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and anyone in between. The personality clash between Roth and the Van Halen brothers that would splinter the original lineup in 1985 was evident from the beginning of their uneasy alliance, but Renoff does an excellent job showing how Roth's pop sensibilities forced the brothers to tighten up their original material and add catchy hooks to eventually culminate in the infectious "big rock" sound they became famous for with the release of their self-titled debut album in early 1978. The author also shatters the myth of Roth as a spoiled rich kid who sat around and used his father's money to become successful. While his father's connections and fortune did help in some cases (and in other cases, not so much), it was Roth's shrewd intellect, tireless work ethic, and constant encouragement that kept the spirits of his three bandmates up as they endured their years-long slog in pursuit of their ultimate goal. By the time Reboff chronicles the whirlwind of their first album recording sessions and first tour in support of it, you can't help but feel proud of the guys as if you had actually been there the whole time.



That feeling of being there in 1970s Los Angeles is one of the things that makes Van Halen Rising such a great book. Renoff uses the words of those who were there and knew the band well before they were famous to place the reader in those dingy clubs, crammed backyards, and basement rehearsal sessions. This not only paints a vivid picture of the band's ascendancy, but gives a wider immersion into the more innocent and frankly fun times of the 1970s. That feeling of being a fly on the wall, the engaging manner in which it's written, and the new information crammed in its pages made Van Halen Rising a book I couldn't put down once I started reading it. When I was finished, not only had I learned so much about the band's early history, but I craved more. Simply put, if you're a fan of Van Halen then you need to read Van Halen Rising. I highly recommend it as one of the best band biographies I've ever read. Word is that Greg Renoff is now working on the authorized biography of Ted Templeman which promises to be another must-read. After that, I pray it's not too much to hope that he'll write a book on the David Lee Roth-era of Van Halen's career because if he does, I know it will be every bit as good as Van Halen Rising.

MY RATING: 10/10

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

ALDS Game 4: Red Sox at New York Yankees (October 9, 2018)

Heading into Tuesday night's game four, I wanted the Red Sox to win so badly to end the series there in New York. Even though game five would be in Boston, it would be a typical all-hands-on-deck postseason game and with the dangerous Houston Astros waiting for the winner of this series in the ALCS, it would behoove Boston to end it in game four and allow Alex Cora to align the rotation (not to mention the extra days of rest it would give the team). Winning two games in a row on the road is a tall task in the postseason, especially at Yankee Stadium, although heading into game four the Red Sox were riding a three game postseason winning streak in the Bronx (games six and seven of the 2004 ALCS and game three of this series). With Rick Porcello on the mound, they looked to have a good chance to make it four as long as they played a nearly flawless game...

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...and for eight innings, they did just that. Porcello was masterful (and incredibly efficient) in this game. It took him just eight pitches to get through the first inning and only sixteen to get through the first two. His final line was five innings, four hits, one run, one strikeout, and no walks, all on only 65 pitches (more on this in a bit). The Sox were scoreless against CC Sabathia for the first two innings, but they were hitting him hard and it felt like only a matter of time before they'd get to him. That came in the third inning when Boston put three runs on the board. After CC hit Andrew Benintendi with a pitch on the triceps, Steve Pearce singled to put runners at the corners. JD Martinez lofted a sacrifice fly to center field which brought Benintendi in and was followed by Ian Kinsler ripping a double to left field over the leaping Brett Gardner to push Pearce across. Eduardo Nunez finished the scoring off with a single which drove in Kinsler and made it 3-0. That was enough to knock Sabathia, who hadn't looked sharp at all, out of the game. Boston had made him work to the tune of 59 pitches in just three innings. They picked up another run in the fourth when Christian Vazquez poked a fly ball over the comically short right field fence at Yankee Stadium to make it 4-0. You could see and hear the fear in the crowd as the game went on. The only run the Yankees got was in the fifth when Brett Gardner drove Gary Sanchez in with a sac fly. Otherwise, the New York hitters couldn't do anything all night. Curiously, Alex Cora didn't send Porcello out for the sixth and instead opted to go to the bullpen. Even though the Yankees had started to hit Porcello a bit in the fifth, he'd been rolling to that point and in my opinion I would've sent him out for one more inning to minimize the bullpen's exposure. Cora had his reasons, though, and in the end it paid off. He got scoreless innings from Matt Barnes in the sixth, Ryan Brasier in the seventh, and (shockingly!) Chris Sale in the eighth. When I saw Sale warming up in the bullpen, I knew that meant that Cora absolutely did not want this series to go back to Boston and that he was serious about ending it then and there. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Sox had a 4-1 lead, but I had the nagging feeling they should've put a few more on the board. Their best chance came in the eighth when Benintendi came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs. He was rung up by an atrocious call from home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, who continued his brutal series after botching three calls at first base in game three. Benintendi could be seen saying quite clearly "that wasn't a strike!" as they argued after the at bat. In any event, Craig Kimbrel began the ninth with a three run lead yet what followed was a horror show that gave me flashbacks to game six of the 1986 World Series. Kimbrel quite literally could not throw a strike. After getting one out by whiffing Giancarlo Stanton, he loaded the bases and then surrendered a run when he hit Neil Walker in the leg. 4-2, Boston. Kimbrel then gave up a long fly ball to Sanchez that nearly ended the game; instead it was caught at the warning track for out number two as a sac fly that drove in Didi Gregorious. 4-3, Boston. The game finally ended when Eduardo Nunez made a great charging play on Gleyber Torres' weak dribbler and threw him out at first as a stretching Pearce corralled the ball for the final out. The Yankees challenged it, but replay clearly showed the throw beating the runner by a step. Game over, series over, and the Sox commenced to celebrate on the field at Yankee Stadium...could you ask for a sweeter way to defeat your fiercest rival?

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As stated above, Porcello was fantastic and I have to single out the bullpen for special praise, too. Barnes, Brasier and Sale were phenomenal in relief, retiring every Yankees batter they faced and getting the lead to Kimbrel in the ninth. Craig, though, was another story. Other than striking the free-swinging and flailing Stanton, his inning was a trainwreck. He gave up a hit, two walks, and two runs and nearly cost the team the game. If it weren't for the incredible play Nunez and Pearce made to end the game, we'd be gearing up for a do-or-die game five on Thursday night. Kimbrel has been shaky for most of this season and it's got worse toward August and September. I don't know if it was nerves or what, but hopefully he's gotten it out of his system now because moving forward an inning like that absolutely cannot happen if the Sox are going to have a chance to advance further. Fittingly the Sox threw the postseason monkey off of their back at Yankees Stadium by advancing to the ALCS for the first time since 2013. Interesting, in this game it was the bottom of the order that did the most damage. Mookie Betts finished off his miserable series with an 0-4 night and looked awful at the plate, but he made some fantastic plays in right field to compensate. The damage in this one came from Pearce, Kinsler, Nunez, and Vazquez and shows how deep and talented this team is on a night when the top of the order did nothing. It was a great way to finish off the Yankees and the series and now gives the Red Sox until Saturday to rest, set up the rotation and bullpen alignment, and prepare to take on the defending champion Astros. Yankees fans wanted Boston after they won the play-in game and they got them. The damage, as they say, is done.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

ALDS Game 3: Red Sox at New York Yankees (October 8, 2018)

I don't think I've ever been so happy to have been wrong about something as I was about these Red Sox.  I was really down on the team after their lackluster performance in game two and thought we were seeing a replay of the last two postseasons (and really, a replay of all of the bad times pre-2004). They weren't pitching well, they were barely hitting (only two runs after the third inning of game one), and they just seemed overmatched and almost scared by the end of game two. Even the game they'd won had been a nailbiter that didn't inspire much confidence. Heading into game three at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees had a swagger and confidence while the Red Sox seemed almost subdued. What I and every other Red Sox fan was reminded of was that baseball is an unpredictable game and that the smallest adjustments often pay the biggest dividends.

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The clamor from most of Red Sox Nation after game two was for Alex Cora to make some changes to the roster. As I mentioned in my recap of the second game, Brock Holt should be playing in place of Ian Kinsler right now and Rafael Devers should be back in the lineup for his bat. At catcher, I was fine with Sandy Leon being in for his defense although if they were going to make a change I wanted it to be Blake Swihart, who has some power and also speed on the bases. I also lamented the fact that through the first two games of this series the Red Sox had barely stolen any bases. Gary Sanchez has a good arm, but he's a terrible defensive catcher (I mean, really terrible) and I thought the Sox should be running wild on him every time. Now, I'm not saying Alex Cora heard me (but I'm not saying he didn't, either...), but the Red Sox made all of these changes in game three and the results were spectacular and certainly beyond what anyone expected.

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Boston had Yankee-killer (and former Yankee) Nathan Eovaldi starting and really needed him to eat up some innings after how much the bullpen had been taxed in the first two games. New York countered with their ace Luis Severino. From the beginning, though, it was a one-sided matchup. Believe it or not, it was the bottom third of the Sox lineup that got things started for the Sox in the second inning when Christian Vazquez' infield single drove in Rafael Devers for the first run of the game. The Sox picked up two more in the third, first when JD Martinez hit a sacrifice fly to push Mookie Betts across and then when Rafael Devers drove Andrew Benintendi in with a fielder's choice. Those runs were set up by some incredibly astute and aggressive baserunning which I need to point out. Mookie had singled and was at first when Benintendi lined it to left field. Incredibly, Mookie made it to third base and Benintendi to second, unheard of when you've just hit to the left side. Heading into the fourth inning with a 3-0 lead, it still didn't feel comfortable. Up to that point all but one of the Red Sox hits had been singles and while they were getting to Severino, they hadn't done too much damage. That all changed in the fourth. Severino was pulled after loading the bases with no outs. It felt like the Sox were about the blow the game wide open with Mookie up and they were, but not quite yet. Mookie walked off of reliever Lance Lynn to drive in the first run of his postseason career and make it 4-0. Benintendi followed by ripping a double down the right field line to clear the bases and instantly swell the lead to 7-0. The Sox kept pouring it on that inning when Steve Pearce singled to drive Benintendi in off of Chad Green and was himself driven in via Holt's triple. By the end of the inning it was 10-0 Red Sox and the Yankee Stadium crowd was dead silent...I've been to funerals that were more lively than that ballpark! The Yankees avoided the shutout by scoring a run in the bottom of the inning off of a Didi Gregorious fielder's choice, but that was all they'd get the entire night. The Red Sox, however, weren't finished. JD singled in a run in the seventh and Holt hit a ground rule double in the eighth to make it 12-1. Later in the eighth, Kinsler (in for defensive purposes) scored on a wild pitch and then Mookie drove in his second run of the night with a single. It was 14-1 heading into the ninth and by that time, everyone was ready to move on to game four. Everyone except Brock Holt, that is, who crushed a two run homer to right field to not only make it 16-1 Boston, but completed his hitting for the cycle. It was, in fact, the first cycle in postseason history (something I was stunned to learn given Major League Baseball's long and rich history). The fact that Holt was hitting off of a position player pitching (Yankees catcher Austin Romine) made it even more fun. The 16-1 drubbing was the worst postseason loss in Yankees history and, in putting Boston ahead in the series 2-1, puts the Bronx Bombers on the brink of elimination.

Before I get to the offense, I have to single out Nathan Eovaldi for some serious praise. On a night when the team needed a strong and long performance from their starter, he delivered and then some. He went seven full innings and only gave up a single run while allowing five hits. Those were the only hits the Yankees had for the entire game. He struck out five batters and didn't walk a single one, and his final pitch of the game touched 100 mph. He did it all on less than a hundred pitches (the final total was 97) and was, simply put, masterful. Heath Hembree and Eduardo Rodriguez each pitched scoreless innings to finish off the game, but with a lead that big even Hembree couldn't screw it up (sorry, I couldn't resist). As for the hitting, the Sox pounded out their sixteen runs on eighteen hits with everyone contributing. Benintendi broke the game wide open in the fourth and finished 2-3 with three RBI and two runs scored to go along with two walks. It was nice to see Mookie finally get on track with a couple of hits, a couple of runs, and (finally!) some postseason RBI. The other usual suspects (Xander Bogaerts, JD, Bradley) all had nice nights, but it was Cora's substitutions who stole the show. Devers went 2-6 with an RBI and two runs scored, Vazquez (this one shocked me) actually swung the bat and went 2-6 with an RBI and a run scored, but how can Brock Holt not be the hero of the game? He was 4-6 with three runs scored, five RBI, and he hit for the cycle...not to mention some stellar defense at second base. If I had told you in July or August that Eovaldi and Holt would be the two who pushed the Yankees to the brink of elimination, you wouldn't have believed me; I wouldn't have believed me. October is often when the unlikeliest heroes emerge, though, and that was certainly the case in this one.

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Game four is Tuesday night and pits Rick Porcello against CC Sabathia. With the Yankees on the brink and the Red Sox finally hitting and running wild on the bases like they did all season, I think I speak for all Red Sox fans when I say I would love for them to wrap up the series and celebrate on the field in New York. In addition to the aforementioned aggressiveness on the bases, I want them to bunt, bunt, bunt until Sabathia begs for mercy. The old, fat, cranky pitcher with bad knees has complained repeatedly over the last few years that it's "disrespectful" for hitters to try and take advantage of him by bunting, so if I were Alex Cora I'd bunt until he shouts "no mas!" from the infield grass. Hey, who knows? Cora listened to me with his substitutions and more aggressive baserunning, so maybe he'll listen to me on this, too, right?


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Sunday, October 7, 2018

ALDS Game 2: New York Yankees at Red Sox (October 6, 2018)

What an absolute disaster. While it may seem strange to declare game two in a five game series "must win," that's exactly how I felt about this game heading into it. The Red Sox won game one by the skin of their teeth and hadn't scored since the third inning of that game. While that was concerning, they seemed to be set up perfectly to win game two. David Price was pitching at home which should have alleviated some of the pressure on him to finally deliver in the postseason and the Yankees were countering with Masahiro Tanaka who had a pretty down season and who the Red Sox have traditionally beat up on. Of course, games are won or lost on the field and not on the stat sheets and there was no more painful reminder of that than in this game.

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I was rooting so hard for David Price to finally break through and win his first career postseason game. I wasn't the only one, either, as he got a loud and warm ovation from the Fenway crowd when he ran onto the field from the bullpen. I figured he had to be finally due to pitch a great game and get that monkey off of his back. It was set up perfectly with him pitching at home against Tanaka: the Red Sox should be able to give him a lot of run support and if he could give them five or six or seven quality innings, they could take a 2-0 series lead. Instead, it couldn't have gone any worse than it did. After retiring Andrew McCutchen to lead off the game, Price ran the count on Aaron Judge to two strikes before giving up an absolute bomb of a home run. Okay, that was only a solo home run...no big deal, I thought. He gave up another solo shot to one of my most hated Yankees, Gary Sanchez, in the second. Again, it was only 2-0, not the end of the world. When he gave up an RBI single off the Green Monster to McCutchen later in the inning after issuing a pair of walks, though, it looked like the wheels were falling off of the cart. Cora gave him the early hook and Price's night was over; it was an absolute trainwreck, lasting only 1.2 innings and resulting in three runs on three hits (two of them home runs), two walks, and no strikeouts. I think I speak for every Red Sox fan when I say that what made it even worse was that it meant we were going to see 7+ innings of the Boston bullpen. But a funny thing happened: the bullpen was great (for the most part). Joe Kelly threw 2.1 shutdown innings and only gave up one hit. Ryan Brasier pitched a hitless inning and had a great moment where he told that lazy load Sanchez to "get in the ****ing box!" and then struck him out. Brandon Workman, who looked shaky in game one and still seemed to be battling nerves, only recorded one out and gave up two hits which led to disaster for Eduardo Rodriguez. E-Rod looked to be the Sox secret weapon out of the pen this postseason but he was anything but when he gave up a three run homer to the hated Sanchez which put the game out of reach. Honestly, this game felt out of reach from the moment it was 3-0 Yankees in the second inning (and it felt like a blowout even though the final score was only 6-2). Tanaka was anything but intimidating and his stuff was unimpressive offspeed junk that the Sox just flailed at all night. It continued a trend this season where pitchers who throw a bit slower and keep the ball off of the plate flummox them. Until late in the game the only Red Sox run came off of Xander Bogaerts' solo homer in the fourth. They added another run in the bottom of the seventh when Ian Kinsler doubled to drive Mitch Moreland in, but that was it as the Sox went down meekly and embarrassingly to the Yankees 6-2.

Beyond the series now being tied at a game apiece, there are a lot of additional concerns for the Red Sox. For the third straight postseason, Mookie Betts has completely vanished in October. He's 1-7 in this series, his lone hit being a double in game one. Andrew Benintendi's second half struggles continue as he seems to be pressing at the plate and his power has completely left him. The entire Red Sox lineup looks like they're pressing and they've been ineffective at converting the limited chances they've had. They've been outhit in both games (8-5 in this one) and outscored in the series 10-7. They've gone up against two of the Yankees' weaker starters and only won one game. Now they have to go on the road and face Luis Severino and CC Sabathia in Yankee Stadium where those two are dominant. They'll counter with Rick Porcello (who has been terrible in the postseason in his career) and Nathan Eovaldi. I don't know about you but that doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy. And then there's David Price. On one hand because I was pulling for him to finally deliver, I felt bad for him when he got booed off the mound in the second inning after Cora pulled him. On the other hand, he absolutely deserved it with the performance he had. The painful irony was that game two was a night where the Red Sox FINALLY got a quality outing from their bullpen who kept it close for an extended period of time, and yet it was their potent offense that completely vanished and couldn't capitalize.

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I don't mean to sound fatalistic and perhaps it's just the scars I carry for all of the pre-2004 Red Sox teams I rooted for, but I'm going to share one of my biggest fears with you that I've kept mostly to myself all season: I don't think this Red Sox team is built for the postseason. They were a great regular season team, but their combination of a shaky bullpen, inconsistent starting pitching (including three top line starters who, until Sale's win on Friday night, hadn't won a playoff start between them), and bats that always seem to disappear in October spell out a short stay in the postseason to me. Of biggest concern is Mookie. While there's almost no chance that he won't win the AL MVP, he has yet to produce in the postseason in his career. This is his third consecutive trip to the playoffs so nerves and inexperience can't be used as an excuse any more. I love the guy, he's already one of my all-time favorite players to ever put on a Red Sox uniform, but he'll be entering David Price territory if he fails to produce for the remainder of this series. Going into this slate of games, I had told myself that if the Red Sox won the first two games, they'd win the series in five, but that if they split or lost both, they'd lose the series in four. Either way, I didn't see them getting past Houston or Cleveland in the ALCS even though I would absolutely love for them to go all the way. You can call me reactionary or pessimistic right now, but I don't think the Red Sox have looked good in this series despite their game one win (remember, they went from the third inning of game one to the fourth inning of game two without scoring a single run) while conversely the Yankees are feeling good about themselves and are starting to show that swagger that we Red Sox fans hate about them. Unless Boston snaps out of it and gets over their nerves or whatever it is that seems to always cause them to seize up in October, this series won't be coming back to Fenway Park. As for Price, at this point I don't know what they can do with him. He cannot and should not pitch again in this series should they be fortunate enough to get it back to Boston. His postseason failures are so far in his head that I don't ever see him being able to get past them. However, they may not have a choice if they continue to need Eduardo Rodriguez out of the bullpen. I'm glad I don't have to make that decision. As for the man who does, Alex Cora did not have a good night in game two and made some questionable decisions. One decision I'll never understand is why he continues to rely on two guys who haven't hit in more than two months (Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland) while sitting their two red hot substitutes (Brock Holt and Steve Pearce, respectively). Also, Eduardo Nunez is providing improved (not great, but improved) defense at third but nothing at the plate. At this point, what can hurt it to put Rafael Devers in? These and many more are decisions that Cora will need to figure out, and fast, if the Red Sox are going to stay in this series. We'll see how everything shakes out in game three on Monday night.

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

ALDS Game 1: New York Yankees at Red Sox (October 5, 2018)

Finally after a week of waiting, the Red Sox played some postseason baseball. While there was a lot of excitement across Red Sox Nation for the games to get started given the incredible regular season they had, I think I speak for most of us when I also say there was a lot of trepidation. Given how they fared in the previous two Octobers and given the struggles their bullpen has had all season, there was a lot of worry if we'd see a repeat of the last two early flame-outs. Granted, the 2018 team is far superior in just about every way to the 2016 and 2017 teams, but that fear still lingered in the back of my mind. There was also the matter of the opponent. Being a Red Sox fan, I of course hate the Yankees and had wanted them to lose the gimmicky play-in game to the A's on Wednesday. On the other hand, I wanted the Sox to play them so badly because there's nothing like the Sox against the Yankees in October. It had also been so long since they'd faced each other in the postseason; not since the epic back-to-back ALCS clashes of 2003 and 2004 had they played each other in a high pressure series. The fact that it'd been that long floored me when I really thought about it. During that incredible and cathartic 2004 series I was a young married graduate student with a child on the way; now I'm a nearly 40 year old father of four and my wife and I have been married for almost twenty years. The time did indeed fly so I think you'll agree with me that it was about time these two squads were pitted against one another in the crucible of October.

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None of us knew what to expect from Chris Sale heading into this game. After ramping up his workload over the last month of the season, the Sox were ready to let him rip in his final start in September only to see his velocity top out in the low 90s. He and the team insisted all week leading up to this game that he was fine, but there was a lot of worry that they were only paying lip service. Once it was game time, though, he showed us that he was indeed going to be okay. While he perhaps didn't have the ungodly velocity he usually has on his fastball and he topped out around 96-97 mph instead of his normal 98-100 mph, Sale was masterful. What he slightly lacked in speed he made up for with his off-speed and breaking pitches. In his 5.1 innings of work he struck out eight (including fanning Giancarlo Stanton twice), walked two, and gave up five hits. He was charged with two earned runs but neither scored on his watch; they were the inherited by the bullpen (more on that later). After he retired the Yankees in the top of the first, the Sox got down to business in the bottom of the inning. After Andrew Benintendi singled and Steve Pearce walked, JD Martinez drilled a low and inside fastball just over the Green Monster for a three run homer and a quick 3-0 Red Sox lead. It was about as perfect a start to the game as they could've had, especially going up against Yankees starter JA Happ. Happ has always perplexed me over the years because his stuff is good but not great, yet he has always stymied the Sox (which is why the Yankees went out and got him). He didn't on this night, though, as the Sox knocked him out after only two innings. Boston added more in the third when Pearce singled to left field to drive Mookie Betts in. It could've been so much more, though. JD Martinez followed and missed hitting another three run homer by a couple of feet and had to settle for moving Benintendi (who was on base ahead of Pearce) over to third with a sacrifice fly. Xander Bogaerts then lofted a sac fly to right field to drive Benintendi in. That made it 5-0 but there was the nagging feeling the Sox left some runs out there. Things continued apace until the sixth when Sale allowed two runners and was lifted by Cora. I thought at that very moment he should've left him in to finish the inning and get out of the jam for two reasons: 1) he was still under 100 pitches and, 2) to give the bullpen a clean inning in the seventh. Instead he put in Ryan Brasier who absolutely could not throw a strike. He gave up an RBI single to the newly hateable Luke Voit which put the Yankees on the board. (Voit is this generation's meathead Jason Giambi character. He even looks like Giambi). That was followed by Didi Gregorious hitting a slow grounder to Xander at short. They tried to turn the double play but the throw from second was delayed by Voit grabbing Bogaerts' leg which left Didi safe at first and a run to score. The Sox should've challenged the play as the replay showed Voit clearly broke the rules by grabbing the leg, but they let it go. Brandon Workman then came in and was literally shaking with nerves even worse than Brasier. He got a huge strikeout to end the inning but not before raising the blood pressure of every Red Sox fan to critical levels. In the seventh inning, Matt Barnes joined Brasier and Workman as guys who literally could not get the ball over the plate in the air. Barnes gave up a run on another ball that couldn't be turned into a double play, this time off the bat of Voit. Let me stop for a moment to mention that the amount of balls thrown in the dirt and wild pitches in this game blew my mind. Sandy Leon earned every penny and then some with his stellar defense behind the plate. Had he not been back there, the Yankees would have scored a few more runs just from all of the balls that would have bounced to the backstop. It got so bad that Cora had to bring game three starter Rick Porcello into the game in the eighth to calm things down. With two outs in the eighth, he then brought Craig Kimbrel to try and get the four out save. Kimbrel has historically been very poor at pitching anything other than a clean ninth inning, so it was a risk but one that fortunately paid off. There was some drama when he gave up a leadoff home run to Aaron Judge in the top of the ninth but he then retired the side and earned the save. A game that looked like an early Red Sox blowout instead turned into them hanging on by their fingernails for a 5-4 win. Still, a win is a win and there are no style points for how you get there.

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The Yankees outhit the Red Sox 10-8 after being shut down for the first half of the game. Conversely after scoring five runs over the first three innings, the Red Sox couldn't convert their other opportunities for the remainder of the game. Those five runs would have been more than enough had the bullpen not come in and completely fallen apart. It was like watching a slow motion car crash frame by frame. What was most upsetting and frankly, downright angering, was the naked fear you could see on the faces of Brasier, Barnes, and Workman. At one point when waiting to deliver his pitch I could see Workman literally shaking with nerves on the mound. We all knew the bullpen was a major issue heading into the postseason, but I don't think any of us thought it would be quite as bad as it was. More than ever, the Red Sox will need their starters to be workhorses and eat up as many innings as they can in order to minimize the bullpen's exposure. On the positive side, the Red Sox now lead the series 1-0 and Chris Sale got his first career playoff win. What he slightly lacked in velocity he made up for in guile and artistry. It will be David Price's turn to do the same and rewrite his postseason script when he goes up against Masahiro Tanaka in game two on Saturday night. As a final point, I can't stress enough how huge the home field advantage was for the Red Sox in game one. It's going to be big going forward; Fenway Park was shaking from the noise and it definitely had a beneficial effect on the Sox. Here's to hoping it will have the same effect in game two.

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