The inside story of how the Red Sox handled a game plan gone awry
It was around midnight that Dana LeVangie emerged in the Red Sox clubhouse, looking like he’d just had a run-in with a Mack truck that left both parties equally dented. So, about that game plan for navigating the late innings …
“Did you all expect Rick Porcello to pitch the eighth inning?” LeVangie mused.
The answer was unanimous: No. Nor, for that matter, had LeVangie anticipated such an turn of events leading into a 5-4 Red Sox Game 1 win over the Yankees.
Guiding a roster through a postseason is one of the great thrills in sports. Gone are the restrictions and limitations that come with managing a team with a 162-game schedule in mind. Each game is, in its own way, a lifetime, and the difference is palpable – and, for a team that has a strong sense of what it’s doing, a delight.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona recently reflected on his first postseason run with the Red Sox in 2004, when he navigated October for the first time of his career against more established rivals Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, and Tony LaRussa.
“I was surprised. The games were fun,” recalled Francona. “We were so well-organized. We had such good meetings and I felt so prepared that I had a lot of fun. When I’m prepared I can be comfortable. We did such a good job, that I felt really comfortable.”
Friday permitted no opportunity for a comfortable acclimation to the postseason for either Alex Cora, the first-year manager, or LeVangie, the first-year pitching coach. The team’s plans were derailed literally before the first pitch, when Steven Wright informed the team that he was dealing with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
That condition rendered Wright unavailable on Friday and, reportedly will likely knock him out of the rest of the Division Series and, in turn, the League Championship Series. (A player removed from a roster due to injury in the middle of one round is ineligible to pitch in the subsequent round.) The Red Sox immediately were left to enter scramble mode.
Though Cora is a managerial rookie, he did acquire critical experience in 2017 that informed him of the need to be agile. As the Astros bench coach in 2017, he rode shotgun as Houston manager A.J. Hinch veered in unexpected directions over the course of that team’s championship run.
“[It is] not always [that] plan A works,” Cora said before Friday’s game, before Wright’s condition was known. “So just be prepared to make adjustments throughout. That’s the most important thing.”
He went on to explain that Houston entered the 2017 playoffs anticipating that the team would navigate the late innings with regular-season relievers Chris Devenski, Ken Giles, and Will Harris. Instead, the struggles of that trio led the team to use starters Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton in late-innings roles while moving Brad Peacock from the rotation to the bullpen.
On Friday, Cora and LeVangie had to make their own sudden pivots. Starter Chris Sale offered 5 1/3 strong innings, leaving with a 5-0 lead but with two runners on base. The Red Sox liked the idea of Ryan Brasier being first in line for the late innings based on the righthander’s emergence as a strong late-innings contributor down the stretch, but Luke Voit ambushed his first pitch for a run-scoring single to right and, after a Didi Gregorius RBI groundout, Brasier lost the strike zone to walk the free-swinging Miguel Andujar.
The Sox, perhaps fearing that Brasier’s nerves were getting the best of him, made a quick move.
“If you asked [Brasier if he was nervous] he might tell you but I expect him to be a lot better tomorrow than he was tonight,” said LeVangie.
Next man in? Brandon Workman.
Workman, of course, is the only member of the Red Sox pitching staff who has a World Series ring, one earned five years ago. But back then, he could lean on what was, at the time, premium mid-90s velocity.
Now three years removed from Tommy John surgery, he’s not the same power pitcher he was then, leaning far more heavily on his cutter and curveball. While an important pitcher at times in the Red Sox bullpen, his place in the late innings has been unstable. A year ago, he was left off the ALDS roster.
“That was hard to deal with,” acknowledged Workman. “You work hard to get into a spot to be on the roster. Not being on it is a letdown for anyone not on it.”
That memory made it even sweeter when, on Thursday night, Cora informed Workman that he’d secured one of the final two spots on this year’s Red Sox postseason roster. That choice raised some eyebrows after Workman got hammered by the Yankees in his final regular season tuneup, but it meant a great deal to the righthander.
“I was definitely a little bit uneasy. I gave up those runs my last outing, and you never know how that’s going to play out,” said Workman. “But obviously I was excited to be on the roster.”
Yet it was one thing to be on the roster – quite another to come into a game where the Yankees had the tying run in the batter’s box in the form of slugging catcher Gary Sanchez. Still, the matchup made sense: Against curveballs from righthanders, Sanchez was 2-for-21 (.095) this year with 49 percent of all of his swings against such offerings resulting in a swing-and-miss.
But Workman missed the strike zone with a first-pitch curveball, then couldn’t find it with a mix of fastballs and cutters on his next three offerings. A four-pitch walk loaded the bases. LeVangie visited the mound with Gleyber Torres getting ready to step in the box.
“We talked about the pitches and how we’re going to start them off and how we’re going to finish them and [it was] really important that one of his pitches, we want to make sure we’re not in the zone with it,” LeVangie said coyly.
Torres was 8-for-17 (.471) in the regular season against curveballs in the strike zone and 2-for-19 (.105) against curveballs below the zone during the regular season. But after the four-pitch walk to Sanchez, Workman fell behind Sanchez, 3-1.
“We’re out there trying to make pitches and execute pitches that we’re going to limit damage. And that’s the ultimate goal especially against this team. This team wins by hitting home runs and when you can eliminate that you’ve got a chance to win baseball games,” LeVangie said.
Workman got back to 3-2 with a well-located fastball on the outer edge, then spun a curveball that dropped below the zone to get Torres swinging. The righthander howled as he walked back towards the dugout, a massive threat stifled.
Somewhat surprisingly, Workman remained in the game against the top of the order in the seventh, with the Yankees delivering back-to-back singles against him before the Sox made the move to their most trusted setup man, Matt Barnes, for the heart of their order.
Barnes wobbled out of the chute, uncorking a curveball for a wild pitch and walking Brett Gardner to load the bases for Giancarlo Stanton.
“It was the perfect matchup,” said LeVangie. “He’s just got to make pitches against them and we feel like [Barnes] can get [Stanton] out if we do what we’re supposed to do.”
The combination of 97 m.p.h. fastballs at the top of the zone and curveballs buried at the bottom of the zone resulted in the outcome that the Red Sox sought: A Stanton punchout. A pair of groundouts – one of them which scored a run to narrow the score to 5-3 – concluded the seventh and Barnes’ night. Six outs left.
Ideally, the Sox wanted Barnes to enter with two outs in the seventh and then to continue into the eighth. But the combination of Sale’s departure after 5 1/3 innings and Brasier’s extremely abbreviated outing had shaken up the pecking order.
In theory, the eighth might have been the spot for Wright entering the series (or, alternately, Wright might have handled the seventh and left the eighth for Barnes). But that wasn’t an option, which led to the most unexpected turn of the game.
Porcello – the scheduled Game 3 starter – hadn’t expected to pitch. He had thrown a bullpen session on Friday afternoon. But during batting practice, as the Red Sox tried to determine a plan to deal with Wright’s absence, Cora approached the pitcher.
“[Cora] asked me to go down to the ‘pen and he was going to try not to use me but to be ready to go. I said OK. [He] called down in the eighth, said I was in the game. I was definitely a little surprised but excited for that opportunity,” said Porcello. “What am I going to say, no? It’s cliche but whatever it takes. They needed me to cover the eighth and get the ball to [closer Craig Kimbrel].”
Entering this year, Porcello had pitched in 11 postseason games. His team had lost all of them – the longest such playoff streak by any pitcher in baseball history. But this time, with a narrowed repertoire – fastball/curveball to Miguel Andujar, fastball/slider to Sanchez – Porcello recorded a pair of outs before he allowed a single to Torres. With two outs in the eighth, it was time for Kimbrel.
Kimbrel’s regular season track record when asked to enter in the eighth inning of a save situation is mixed. In five regular season save opportunities this year in which he entered in the eighth, he converted three, allowing four runs in six innings across those outings.
But there is no denying that, in a vacuum, the Red Sox would rather have Kimbrel in their highest leverage, late-innings situations than just about any other alternative. The team is prepared to deploy him aggressively.
“We’re all in. We’re all in to win this,” said LeVangie. “We expect our guys in the bullpen to be available every game this series. If we play five we expect them to be available five games. And our training room has become an emergency room, so we’re expecting — we’re asking a lot from these guys and it might be six outs. That’s the way it is.”
Kimbrel blasted Andrew McCutchen with a 99 m.p.h. fastball on the hands for a lazy, inning-ending pop-up in the eighth, then came back for the ninth. Though he allowed an opposite-field solo homer to Aaron Judge on a curveball on the inner third of the plate – an extraordinary example of Judge’s ability to combine power with his inside-out swing – he blew away Gardner (two swing-and-miss fastballs), Stanton (who took three straight pitches en route to a strikeout), and Voit (two swing-and-miss fastballs) to claim the second postseason save of his career and his first since 2013.
The whole thing felt chaotic, a crumple-the-blueprint type of game. Yet in the playoffs, talk about process gets trumped by the reality of the bottom line. And so while there were a number of choices that deserve to be second-guessed, Cora and LeVangie could take a moment to try to catch their breath after Game 1, all while imagining a Game 2 plan that will come with a disclaimer label: Subject to Change.