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How the Red Sox bullpen navigated the final 12 outs of Game 4

Craig Kimbrel threw 28 pitches in the ninth, 13 for strikes.
Craig Kimbrel threw 28 pitches in the ninth, 13 for strikes.(Jim Davis/Globe staff)

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NEW YORK —

Nerve-racking would be an understatement. Late on Tuesday evening, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel made an entire region collectively hold its breath, thousands upon thousands of neck hairs standing on edge.

No one thought it would be easy. With 12 outs left and a trip to the ALCS on the line, the erratic Red Sox bullpen was put on trial.

It all started according to plan. With Boston leading, 4-1, following five sturdy innings from Rick Porcello, on came the Red Sox relievers. Matt Barnes worked a 1-2-3 sixth. Ryan Brasier recorded a spotless sseventh. Chris Sale made a surprise appearance in the eighth, and he too did not allow a base runner.

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Who could have imagined Kimbrel giving Bostonians the biggest scare?

The Yankees’ deficit remained at three when Kimbrel entered to work the ninth. He walked Aaron Judge on four pitches as Yankee Stadium began to buzz. Didi Gregorius was next and looked lost early in the count before grounding a single into right.

Kimbrel briefly regained control, feeding Giancarlo Stanton a heavy diet of sliders and striking him out.

Then his control was gone again as Luke Voit walked on four pitches to load the bases. Neil Walker followed and was clipped in the foot with a stray breaking ball, trimming Boston’s lead to two.

If one play will haunt New Yorkers for the duration of winter, it was a Gary Sanchez fly ball that came a few feet away from forcing a rubber match. The Yankees’ catcher worked the count full, battling until Kimbrel offered him a fastball down broadway. Sanchez unloaded and gave the ball a ride, but it settled in the glove of Andrew Benintendi on the left field warning track.

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The excitement wasn’t over, but New York’s best chance at victory was. The lead now down to one after Sanchez’s sacrifice fly, Kimbrel induced a dribbler by rookie Gleyber Torres down the third-base line. Eduardo Nunez fielded and threw, producing a bang-bang play. Upon review, it was confirmed Torres was out.

Onto Houston.

“It got a little exciting there at the end,” said Kimbrel. “The goal is to come off the field with a win and we were able to do it.”

Barely.

Matt Barnes did his part with a perfect seventh.
Matt Barnes did his part with a perfect seventh.(Jim Davis/Globe staff)

Porcello sat at just 65 pitches after five innings, but Cora decided to try his luck with his relievers. Perhaps Cora would have left Porcello in under different circumstances, but with the heart of the Yankee order due up and the righty already twice through New York’s order, he called upon Barnes instead.

Barnes calmly tossed seven heaters and seven curveballs to retire Judge, Gregorius, and Stanton in order.

Brasier was next — not exactly the spot he envisioned for himself when he began the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. He too was entirely composed with an antsy Yankee Stadium crowd looking for any reason to erupt.

Then came a surprise. Prior to Game 4, Cora rewinded the tape back to 2017 when he served as a bench coach for Houston. With the Astros in an identical situation to the Red Sox on Tuesday, manager A.J. Hinch summoned ace Justin Verlander out of the bullpen, thus making him unusable for a potential fifth game. Verlander got the job done and Houston advanced, but Cora disagreed with the call.

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Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello gave up four hits and one run in five innings.
Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello gave up four hits and one run in five innings. (Jim Davis/Globe staff)

“I didn’t agree with that move,” recalled Cora. “When [A.J.] brought in Verlander, I remember Benny hits it out of the ballpark. I said, ‘Hey, how long are you going to keep him out there?’ Because I’m thinking Game 5. And A.J. goes, ‘Let him finish the inning.’ And he goes out there again, and I look at the bullpen, and there’s nobody in the bullpen. I say, ‘How long are you going to stay with him?’ He’s like, ‘The whole game.’ Okay, you’re the manager.”

So much for that explanation. Cora is now the primary decision maker and he knew Sale had handled himself well in prior relief appearances.

Torres gave Sale a scare, sending a limp changeup to the warning track in right-center, but Jackie Bradley Jr. tracked it down. Sale then retired Andrew McCutchen and fanned Aaron Hicks looking with a mean slider.

“From the fifth inning on, I was ready,” said Sale. “It was fun. I enjoyed it. [The bullpen] was my home to start my career. It was fun to get back in there.”

Kimbrel made things messy in the final frame, but Boston emerged with a 4-3 victory.

Sure, Kimbrel could have been sharper, but what’s a Yankees-Red Sox playoff game without loads of drama?


Owen Pence can be reached at owen.pence@globe.com.