HOUSTON — This was a statement game and Jackie Bradley Jr. made the loudest noise.
On a day of a Spygate accusation hurled at the world champion Astros, scintillating plays (hello, Alex Bregman), questionable calls (did that Steve Pearce fly ball clang off the wall before it was caught?) and high-wire drama, JBJ put a stop to the suspense with a no-doubt grand slam off Roberto Osuna in the top of the eighth inning Tuesday. Bradley’s mighty clout blew open a tight contest and propelled the surging Red Sox to an 8-2, Game 3 victory over the ’Stros.
That’s 113 wins and counting for your Olde Towne Team. If the Sox can beat the Astros two more times in this ALCS, they’ll open the 114th World Series next Tuesday night at Fenway.
But slow down that train. Beating the proud champs two more times will not be easy. The 103-win ’Stros are more than capable of getting up off the mat even if they find themselves being investigated by Ted Wells (MLB is looking into some camera chicanery by the Astros at Fenway last weekend).
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The Red Sox, meanwhile, are going to be impossible to beat if they keep getting big production from the bottom of their estimable batting order.
“Two games in a row Bradley has been in the big spot and delivered,’’ said Houston manager A.J. Hinch. “Certainly it makes them a tougher offense.’’
“We saw that coming in the middle of the season,’’ Cora said when asked about Bradley. “Now he’s more comfortable. Credit to him.’’
In this season of whopping success, JBJ has been a controversial topic across Red Sox Nation. He is, without question, one of the best center fielders in baseball today, and there are veteran Sox watchers who say he is the best they have ever seen — better than Jimmy Piersall or Freddie Lynn.
It’s Bradley’s offense that’s been a problem. A career .238 hitter who strikes out a lot, Bradley was an automatic out in the early months of the 2018 season. He was a “Coke and a hot dog” hitter. When he was coming to the plate, you felt safe going to get a Coke and a hot dog. Bradley spent April and May significantly south of the Mendoza Line (batting .161 on May 19) while a legion of JBJ defenders insisted he was just plain unlucky and his glove made up for his salami bat.
“It’s hard,’’ acknowledged Cora. “He kept showing up and working his craft.’’
“I just continued to grind,’’ Bradley said. “You’re going to go through it. I’m not afraid to fail . . . once the game starts you just have to go out there and compete. Do the best you can and see what happens. I felt like I was hitting the ball hard right at people. In the second half of the season I got some balls to fall in.’’
Red Sox pitchers want Bradley playing, even when he’s slumping.
“We say that it’s like having four outfielders on the field,’’ Chris Sale said before the start of the playoffs.
In the second half of the season, Bradley rebounded to hit .234 with 13 homers and 59 RBIs for the runaway Red Sox. But like most of his teammates, he still had much to prove in the postseason. When the Sox lost six of seven playoff games in the last two Octobers, Bradley was a big part of the problem, batting .160 with 13 strikeouts in 25 at-bats.
He’s still not tearing the cover off the ball (.167 in the first three games of this series), but he’s driven home seven runs with two swings of the bat in the last two games.
In Game 2 it was Bradley’s three-run Wall-ball double that pushed the Sox to a 5-4 lead in the fourth, and almost made a winner out of David Price (Price was pulled, leading 5-4, with two outs in the fifth). Tuesday in Houston, after seven innings of tension, Bradley broke things open with his statement slam to right on a 1-1 fastball from Osuna in the eighth.
“As soon as he hit it, we knew that ball was gone,’’ said Cora. “It was a good feeling. It makes it easier to manage with a six-run lead. I’m very happy for Jackie.’’
Bradley, who was 1 for 18 with the bases loaded during the regular season, said, “Just putting good swings on some good pitches. That’s pretty much it . . . I was looking for a ball up in the zone that I could handle and I got that pitch.
“I’ve never been an over-the-top type,’’ he said. “I had a high school coach who told me, ‘no one should ever know whether you’re winning or losing. Keep the same temperament and that will allow you to put perspective on things.’’’
Both managers tried to keep things in perspective after this momentum-changing game in Houston.
“I do feel that in the ALDS we grew up as a team,’’ said Cora. “Going into Game 3 the sky was falling and all of a sudden we weren’t good . . . ’’
Now they have won four of five, including three straight road games.
“There’s no pouting around here,’’ said Hinch. “There’s no panic . . . ’’
Just a new potential cheating controversy and a very hot Red Sox team.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com