MINNEAPOLIS — If the Red Sox are still as captivating a few months from now as they are at the moment, this chilly series at Target Field will be remembered as the time when something took root.
Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep of the Minnesota Twins was about more than extending their win streak to nine games. The Twins are a playoff-quality team who had the formidable duo of Kenta Maeda and José Berríos on the mound, and the Red Sox ran them over.
“That’s a good baseball team and to win both games [and] win the series. it makes it special,” said Alex Cora, who at this rate may win over even the cold-hearted critics who didn’t want him to get a second chance.
“We have a good baseball team, and we have to keep working on it. But days like today, they’re very gratifying.”
It’s reasonable to wonder if the rotation will hold up and how the Sox will maintain their success once the lineup cools down from the bonfire it has been the last 10 days.
But they stole Game 1, winning 3-2 despite leaving 12 men on base over seven innings. It took Alex Verdugo making a diving catch to end the game and leave the tying run stranded at second base.
Then Eduardo Rodriguez outpitched Berríos, allowing one run over five innings to improve to 2-0 in his own comeback season as the Sox cruised, 7-1.
Creativity played a factor, too. The Sox came into the day leading the American League with 6.2 runs per game. But they used a sacrifice bunt to win the first game.
During his time in exile on an island — Puerto Rico, not Elba — Cora watched the 2020 season unfold and took notice of how the seven-inning games in doubleheaders were played with more urgency in the early innings than would be the case in a nine-inning game.
It was an unexpected benefit of the pandemic rules instituted by baseball to make for shorter days at the ballpark.
“It’s a different game,” Cora said. “It was fun watching from home but it’s different when you’re managing the game.”
So with a 1-0 lead in the second inning of Game 1, Cora had backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, the No. 9 hitter, put a bunt down with the intent of moving the runners to second and third.
Plawecki hadn’t had a successful sacrifice since 2018 and this one wasn’t textbook. It was too close to Maeda, who snapped it up and threw to third.
But his throw sailed into foul territory. That made it 2-0. Christian Arroyo followed with a double to send home another.
The Sox didn’t score again, despite numerous chances, but held on. That lowly bunt was decisive.
Run expectancy charts will tell you sacrifice bunts usually decrease the odds of scoring. But in a seven-inning game, that calculus is different.
Cora played the numbers.
“If you look at run expectancy and win expectancy in that situation, you go second and third and the chances of winning the ballgame they go up, actually,” Cora said. “Maybe we don’t have a big inning but that run at third base is huge.”
Another sign of urgency: Cora had a reliever warming up in the third inning when Nate Eovaldi gave up two runs. Seven-inning games are no time to give the starter some rope.
Eovaldi extricated himself from the jam and went five innings for the win. He has allowed only four earned runs in 17 1/3 innings.
It also helps to be a little lucky. Cora used Kiké Hernández as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning for left fielder Franchy Cordero. Hernández popped up twice.
But putting Hernández in the game improved the outfield defense as he went to center field and Verdugo shifted over to left.
With a runner on second and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Luis Arraez lined a pitch to left off Matt Barnes. Verdugo broke in and made a diving catch reminiscent of the one Andrew Benintendi made to end the 2018 ALCS in Houston.
In the second game, Berríos had a one-hit shutout and a 1-0 lead through four innings. Then the Sox sent 11 batters to the plate in the fifth and scored six runs.
Christian Vázquez set the inning up, drawing a seven-pitch walk after Rafael Devers doubled. Six of the next eight batters reached with Verdugo knocking a two-run single into right field.
Verdugo was 5 of 8 with three RBIs on the day. He also homered in the seventh inning of Game 2.
“We’re constantly feeding off energy,” said Verdugo, who supplies a lot of it.
The Sox are the first team in history to open the season with a losing streak of three or more games then win nine in a row.
By July, we’ll know if that was a quirk or a sign.
“To come up here, to win some ballgames and to actually be at the top of the standings and kind of, like, overlooked a little bit. I love it. I love it,” Verdugo said.
“I love this group of guys. I love this team. The chemistry, everything. It’s something special on this team.”