Nine thoughts on the Red Sox’ 5-4 victory over the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Division Series . . .
1. Oh, right. It’s been awhile, but now we remember: This is what it’s like to play the Yankees in October. No early lead seems safe, every game seems to slow to a Buchholzian crawl when your rooting interest is ahead, and the tension is chronic. The Red Sox’ 109th victory overall this season and first of the postseason was undoubtedly their most grueling of 2018, and while winning meaningful games like this is satisfying once they’re complete, it’s also a reminder of this: We’d better learn how to cope now, because this is how it always is with the Yankees, and it’s how it is going to be until this series is over. Tension isn’t a result of this series. It’s a participant.
2. Had the Sox blown their early 5-0 lead, the story of this game would be the uneven performance of the bullpen. It’s still a major part of the plot, and one that will probably resurface again. But in the end, there were a number of Game 1 heroes for the Red Sox. J.D. Martinez lasered a three-run home run in the first inning. Chris Sale was not at his electrifying best, but he was the next tier or two down, and that was plenty good enough. Rick Porcello, the Game 3 starter, got two huge outs in the eighth inning, and Craig Kimbrel nailed down the final four outs, though an Aaron Judge homer leading off the ninth only heightened the drama. I’d suggest exhaling and savoring this Red Sox win, but they’re back at this Saturday night, and it all feels so familiar again.
3. When Sale departed after 5⅓ innings, there were two runners on, the Red Sox held a five-run lead, and they needed 11 outs from the bullpen. When Ryan Brasier was removed three batters after relieving Sale (his final act walking Miguel Andujar, who totaled 25 walks in 606 plate appearances in the regular season), there were two other runners on, the Red Sox held a three-run lead, and they needed 10 outs from their bullpen, and once again, that felt like way too much to ask.
4. Given how it’s gone with this pen this season – they’ve been the chronic blemish on an otherwise lovely season — it felt as if they needed 100 outs, and it seemed a tall task asking them to get one, especially after Brandon Workman entered and walked .186-hitting Gary Sanchez on four pitches to load the bases. But rather than continuing to dabble in arson, Workman somehow – and absolutely it was surprising – struck out Gleyber Torres on a 3-2 pitch to escape the jam.
5. Matt Barnes followed. He’s been one of the Red Sox’ more dependable relievers, which is kind of like being the most ethical person on “Bachelor in Paradise.” He has excellent strikeout numbers (96 in 61⅔ innings), but walks too many (4.5 per nine innings this season) and occasionally self-destructs like he’s some kind of Calvin Schiraldi disciple. He’s also coming off a hip injury. Barnes was, however, a clearly better option than one mentioned in a press box announcement: “Warming up in the bullpen for the Red Sox, Joe Kelly.” Warming up for what, I have no idea.
6. Late-game tension suffocates the good things that came before. Sale’s performance (5⅓ innings, 5 hits, 2 earned run, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts) was at least encouraging from the first pitch, a four-seam fastball to Andrew McCutchen that registered 95.4 miles per hour on the radar gun. The zip on his fastball, missing in his recent starts as he tried to find his groove after shoulder inflammation abbreviated his second half to 29 innings, was back. In the first truly meaningful inning he has pitched in weeks if not months, he whiffed McCutchen on four pitches, got Aaron Judge looking at a slider, and after a walk to Aaron Hicks, struck out Giancarlo Stanton on a 3-2 count.
7. The Yankees’ resilience — it’s reasonable to believe they’d have won this game had it lasted another inning or two — probably spared J.A. Happ of seeing a “Happless!” headline in one New York tabloid or another Saturday morning. Happ, who went 7-0 for the Yankees after a deadline trade from the Blue Jays, entered the game with a deserved reputation as a Red Sox nuisance. He’d had a 1.99 ERA this season against the Red Sox in four stars, and a 5-1 record with a 1.98 ERA in a dozen starts since the beginning of the 2015 season. Happ lasted just two innings in Game 1, allowing four hits, a walk, and five earned runs. Some of his problems were command-related — just 24 of his 44 pitches were strikes – but there were also signs the Red Sox had finally solved him. Andrew Benintendi had two hits against Happ after managing the same number in 18 at-bats previously in his career. J.D. Martinez, 4 for 20 previously, took him deep and crushed another ball deep to right. They’ll see him again in this series, and now they know they can get to him.
8. David Ortiz had a .947 OPS and 17 home runs in 85 postseason games. He batted .455 with a 1.322 OPS in 14 World Series games. He accounts for at least a half-dozen of the most memorable moments in Red Sox postseason history, delivering in the playoff situations that Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn, and even Carl Yastrzemski too often could not. There would be so much more misery in Red Sox history had he not come here in 2003. I would never compare anyone in the postseason to Ortiz, because no one in the postseason – including Reggie Jackson – has been his October equal. I will, however, say this: J.D. Martinez’s three-run homer in the first inning sure did seem like something David Ortiz would do.
9. Before all of the stress, it was reassuring to be reminded of success of the past. Trot Nixon, who threw out the first pitch, has long been a favorite of Red Sox fans for his Dirt Dog persona. Now 44, with more than a touch of gray in his beard and looking like no threat to steal a base, he now blends in with his people, which is kind of charming. It was especially as he was standing on Jersey Street before the game in an unbuttoned Sox jersey while accepting donations for Hurricane Florence relief efforts in his native North Carolina. Though he had the game-breaking hit in the clinching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, I’ll always remember him first for the 11th-inning home run in Game 3 of the 2003 AL Division Series win against the A’s. Shane Victorino’s don’t-worry-’bout-a-thing grand slam in Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS is the loudest I’ve ever heard Fenway. Nixon’s homer might be the runner up. Another moment like that would be wonderful this postseason. It might also be necessary to survive this bullpen.