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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