What on earth has gotten into the Red Sox offense?
The team’s October eruption continued in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday. The Sox remained disciplined while punishing Astros starter José Urquidy for six runs in the second inning, seeing 46 pitches from the righthander before forcing him from the game after five outs.
While the signature blow in the 12-3 victory over the Astros – which gave the Sox a 2-1 lead in the series – was Kyle Schwarber’s grand slam, it was an 11-pitch walk by Alex Verdugo (the longest at-bat Urquidy has ever endured in his major league career) that set the rally in motion.
Such complementary displays have become a staple of a Red Sox postseason run that now has the team just two wins from a World Series berth. The team is amassing walks and opposite-field hits in front of homers to create a wrecking ball offense.
To be sure, the Sox have been playing a historic brand of powerball. Their 20 homers in this run are tied for the most in franchise history for a single postseason, and also tied the big league record for the most by any team through eight playoff games.
But the team’s 57 runs through eight playoff games – 7.1 runs per contest, tied for the third-most ever through eight postseason games – have been the product of an offense that is suddenly versatile and dangerous.
“Offensively this is the best we’ve been the whole season,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “They’re locked in right now.”
The performance has been as unexpected as it has been dazzling. After all, the Red Sox limped through the final days of the regular season, looking as vulnerable as they had at any point this season while struggling to score against the Orioles and Nationals, two of the worst pitching staffs in the big leagues. Now, the switch has flipped.
“During the season, it comes and goes. It’s hard to be on top and be so focused night after night,” said hitting coach Tim Hyers. “It’s really, really difficult. It doesn’t mean they didn’t care. It was just up and down. There’s two weeks where we were nailing it as a group and then a couple of weeks where maybe we lacked a little bit. But that’s human nature. It’s going to happen.
“Guys are focused [in the playoffs]. They know what it takes. They know that winning 90 feet, just getting on base is a rally in the playoffs. They know that scoring those runs early and making sure you’re focused early really helps. So I think it’s just a more focused group.”
The team is — to borrow an oft-used phrase — passing the baton. The team is fighting off two-strike counts for walks, shooting line drives up the middle and to the opposite field through shifts, putting the ball in play in key situations, and generally finding ways to keep the bases at high occupancy so that extra-base hits turn into multiple runs and homers turn into bonanzas.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Schwarber. “Ever since the playoffs have started, I felt like we’ve done a really good job collectively as a group. [Hyers and assistant hitting coach Pete Fatse] are doing a really good job of coming up and having presentations on pitchers, giving their gameplan, and then opening the floor to the players to kind of collectively talk and to come up with a gameplan. I feel like we’ve been doing a really good job of executing that gameplan, and it’s showing out there.”
Indeed. Amazingly, Schwarber’s grand slam was the third in two games for the Sox – setting a record for any team in a single postseason. The four-run homers don’t happen without great at-bats in front of the crowning shots.
In this case, Schwarber’s grand slam was preceded by five straight batters reaching base with one out: Verdugo’s 11-pitch walk, a J.D. Martinez double, a Hunter Renfroe walk, a Christian Vázquez opposite-field single for one run, a Christian Arroyo groundball kicked away by Astros second baseman José Altuve for another, and finally, on a 3-0 pitch, Schwarber’s blast.
Notice anything missing from that succession of events? There were no strikeouts. In fact, the Sox struck out just seven times, continuing a recent trend.
The team entered Monday with a 19.6 percent strikeout rate in the playoffs – lower than its 22.6 percent regular season rate, and the lowest by far of any team in the postseason this year. (The Dodgers ranked second, at 21.7 percent.)
Members of the team suggest that the pregame meetings of hitters and coaching staffs have been particularly lively and focused. The gatherings – in which Martinez, Schwarber, Kiké Hernández, and members of the coaching staff serve as prominent voices – break down opposing starters in precise detail: What the ball looks like coming out of his hand, how certain pitches move, tendencies in specific counts.
With Hernández and Schwarber occupying the first two spots in the lineup since the Wild Card Game against the Yankees, the conversation has continued into the dugout, with Red Sox hitters communicating about how the pregame scouting report aligns with what the first batters are actually seeing.
Similar conversations occurred during the regular season. But the bright spotlight of the postseason has sharpened both the dialogue and attention spans of those participating in them.
“I think in the postseason, your concentration is a little bit more,” said Martinez. “In the season, it’s hard to have that level of focus for 162 games. Your brain and your body can only take so much. It’s a [expletive] grind. Postseason, you get adrenaline.”
That adrenaline has led to a dominant performance that has now carried the team halfway through the ALCS on the road to the World Series. For a team that performed with striking unevenness during the regular season, the timing of its renewed consistency has been remarkable.
“It’s relentless,” said Schwarber. “That’s what we want to be as an offensive group, relentless.”