HOUSTON — The Red Sox had little choice but to give Jackie Bradley Jr. a few days off in mid-May. His batting average had dropped to .173, his every turn at bat seeming to result in a strikeout or a ground ball into the shift.
When he returned from three days of behind-the-scenes work, Bradley had a new approach at the plate. That allowed him to slowly but steadily build up his numbers and stay in the lineup.
Bradley had an .827 OPS after the All-Star break and on Thursday was named Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series.
“This is definitely a special moment,” he said.
Bradley drove in nine runs in five ALCS games, getting big hits in Games 2 and 3 that gave the Sox control of the series.
“I felt good. I felt good. I think it kind of just all boils down to having a game plan and obviously executing,” he said. “You can have a game plan but sometimes it might not work out. But as a batter you want to swing at good pitches. You want to swing at pitches you can handle.”
Bradley was 0 for 3 in the clinching Game 5 but ran down several balls in center field.
“You want to try to make all the plays you possibly can in order to help the team and don’t want to give away any outs,” he said. “We’re playing against some really good ball teams here. So runs and outs are at a premium.”
That manager Alex Cora had faith in him is ultimately what turned the season around for Bradley. He wasn’t benched; he was given a chance to reset.
“That’s what makes him special. His ability to communicate with us, relate with us,” Bradley said. “We feel like he can be one of the guys, but we also understand his leadership, his role, who he is. He takes control. He makes sure that we continue to keep pressing forward.”
Cora readily admitted he had a difficult decision to make with one of his pitchers in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night.
Surprisingly it was with Rick Porcello, not Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel put six men on base over two rocky innings but held on to get the save in a game the Sox won, 8-6.
The final out came when Andrew Benintendi made a diving catch in left field with the bases loaded, stealing a hit from Alex Bregman.
David Price was coming in had the Astros tied the game. But Cora was determined to stick with Kimbrel until then, maybe even for one more batter.
Kimbrel converted his first four save chances of the postseason despite allowing five runs on six hits, five walks, two hit batters and a wild pitch. It was the worst stretch of his stellar career.
“I was OK with him,” Cora said.
Kimbrel threw 35 pitches Wednesday night, his most this season, and for the first time in his nine-year career faced the same hitter twice in the game. It happened with Tony Kemp and then Bregman.
Cora said it was a much tougher call for him to continue with Porcello, who went four innings and allowed four runs on seven hits, four of them for extra bases.
“It looked bad but was it that bad?” Cora said. “That was the hardest [decision] honestly. We needed four [innings], at least four, to make it happen. At one point I was, like, ‘Oh, God, are we going to be able to hold this up and he did. Give him credit, he did.”
Cora stayed with Kimbrel again in Game 5, using him for the ninth inning. Kimbrel was much sharper this time, striking out two and working around a walk.
The Sox made an adjustment with his hands so that Kimbrel was not tipping off his slider to hitters.
“There’s something with his slider, I think,” Cora said before the game. “There has to be something going on because there’s a lot of takes — quality ones, too, quality ones. They keep taking it. That started in New York [in the ALDS].
Sale is ready, but mum
Chris Sale threw some pitches from flat ground and is cleared to make his next start, which will be Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series.
The lefthander was held out of Thursday’s game so he could regain more strength after being hospitalized with a stomach ailment earlier in the week.
“He’s feeling good as far as eating [solid food] and all that,” Cora said. “He’ll be ready.”
Cora said Sale was in good spirits and felt much better than he did a few days ago.
But that could not be independently confirmed as for the third consecutive day, the Red Sox refused to make Sale available to reporters.
First baseman Mitch Moreland was in the starting lineup for the first time since Game 2 of the Division Series on Oct. 6 when he strained his right hamstring. He was 2 for 4 with a double . . . The Rangers are interested in interviewing assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett for their coaching staff, the Dallas Morning News reported . . . Christian Vazquez started his fourth consecutive game and has essentially displaced Sandy Leon as the starter, with the likely exception of Leon catching Sale. Cora said Vazquez’s approach at the plate is “night and day” compared with the first half of the season. “If you want to play, you have to play better,” Cora said . . . Jeff Kent, who played two of his 17 seasons in the majors for the Astros, threw out the first pitch to Jose Cruz. He threw it over Cruz’s head . . . The crowd at Minute Maid Park booed loudly when crew chief Joe West and the rest of umpires came on the field. West called fan interference in the first inning of Game 4, taking a two-run homer away from Jose Altuve.