The story of the 2018 Red Sox gets better with every chapter
The Red Sox finally sent their postseason script back for a much-needed rewrite. The new ending, which doesn’t have their season ending in the first round of the playoffs, is a hit from Falmouth to Freeport, Maine. That the revised story line featured a playoff victory over the hated Yankees in their haughty home with a deliciously derisive Frank Sinatra soundtrack for the celebration was a satisfying dramatic touch.
We know what the Red Sox’ playoff dance was the last two seasons: in, lose, repeat. They got swept by the Cleveland Indians in three games in the Division Series in 2016 and brushed aside by the Houston Astros in four games last season. Those losses were the caveat that clung to a 108-win regular season, the most successful in franchise history, and a third straight American League East crown.
No more. The Sox rewrote their postseason story and changed their playoff perception by downing the 100-win Yankees in the ALDS in commanding fashion.
The Sox no longer bear the burden of consecutive first-round exits. They vanquished the Yankees and their reputation for not delivering on the October stage. They have a new playoff attitude as they prepare for an AL Championship Series showdown with the defending world champion Astros. They are free.
“It’s about time. We were stuck in that first round for a while,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told reporters in the sodden and jubilant visiting clubhouse of Yankee Stadium. “But I think this is a group we have that is pretty special compared to the rest.”
Think about what the Sox accomplished in banishing the Yankees in four games and finding playoff redemption. They won more games on the home field of their ancient enemies in two days than they had won in the prior two postseasons (1-6 record) combined.
They swept both games in New York and never trailed for a single inning. In Game 3, they administered a Bronx beatdown, handing the Yankees their worst playoff loss ever, a 16-1 shellacking. In Game 4, they jumped out to a 4-0 lead against portly portsider CC Sabathia and survived Craig Kimbrel’s best Heathcliff Slocumb impression to prevail, 4-3.
Start spreading the news . . . these Red Sox are built for the crucible of October baseball from the front office to the manager’s office to the dugout to the (gulp) bullpen. That includes the starting pitchers.
No group did more to change the narrative surrounding their performance than the Sox’ starters, who also helped finish games.
In the prior two postseasons, the Sox’ issues started with their starters. During that span, only one starter completed the fifth inning: Chris Sale in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, a seven-earned-run ambush by the Astros. This time, only one starter didn’t complete five innings, star-crossed lefty David Price, who lasted just 1⅔ in the Sox’ only loss of the series, Game 2 at Fenway.
Red Sox starting pitchers went 3-1 with a 3.32 ERA this time. Last year, they were 0-2 with a 12.71 ERA. In 2016, they were 0-3 with a 9.26 ERA.
Rick Porcello was the poster boy for the turnaround. He got huge outs in the eighth inning of Game 1 when employed as a setup man by manager Alex Cora. Then in Game 4, the New Jersey native pitched five innings of one-run baseball to pick up his first playoff win as a starter, in his fifth try. He showed toughness and temerity, challenging Yankees hitters during the game and Sabathia’s laments about home plate umpire Angel Hernandez after the game.
Perhaps, the best development of the series was Sale definitively answering questions about his health and effectiveness after a disconcerting September series of convalesce starts. He pitched lights out in 5⅓ innings in Game 1 last Friday, striking out eight before being charged with two runs as Ryan Brasier sweated out his playoff debut. You might be among the undead if you didn’t get goosebumps watching Sale come in from the bullpen Tuesday night to pitch the eighth.
The bullpen was shakier than a shopping cart with a rogue wheel in Game 1, but Matt Barnes and Brasier rebounded with clutch shutdown innings in Game 4 to set up Sale.
The lithe lefty isn’t pitching in relief on three days’ rest if his shoulder is held together by paper clips, bubble gum, and duct tape. He’s not 100 percent, but he’s still ace-worthy. This 13-pitch relief appearance for Sale went better than the extended one he made last year in Game 4 of the ALDS, which ended with him serving up a game-tying homer to Alex Bregman.
One of the reasons the Red Sox didn’t end up with a horror-movie trilogy of first-round exits is a new leading man as manager. This series was an affirmation of the decision to hire Cora.
Cora managed on-deck circles around his Yankees counterpart and fellow first-year manager Aaron Boone, navigating his first playoff series as a major league manager with aplomb.
The author of the heartbreaking walkoff home run that completed the Red Sox’ self-immolation in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Boone whiffed in this series. He left Sabathia in too long in Game 4 and made the dubious decision to follow Luis Severino with Lance Lynn in Game 3, opening the floodgates for a Red Sox rout that turned the tide.
Meanwhile, Cora went full baseball Belichick in the Bronx. The coup de grace was using Sale as a setup man in Game 4 to buttress his bend-but-don’t-break bullpen.
But he also inserted Brock Holt and Rafael Devers into the lineup for Game 3 and watched as Holt became the first player to hit for the cycle in a postseason game and Devers went 2 for 6 with a run batted in.
He sat both players for Game 4, going back to Ian Kinsler and Eduardo Nunez. They delivered with back-to-back, two-out, run-scoring hits in a three-run third inning. Nunez ended the game with a difficult defensive play on Gleyber Torres’s slow roller to third, allowing the Sox to survive Kimbrel’s rickety relief appearance.
“He pulled all the right moves, man,” Bogaerts told reporters. “He did.”
It’s not often in life that you get to rewrite your story. The Sox have done that. They’ve proven they can prevail in the postseason.
The Astros and firebrand Bregman will be happy to play the villain role in what should be an ALCS epic.
The postseason plot thickens. We don’t know how it will end, but we do know the playoffs won’t end the same way for the Sox as in 2016 and 2017 — with a first-round flop.
The Red Sox flipped their postseason script, and it’s time for a new narrative.