HOUSTON — “Get off my lawn.”
Three outfielders have turned an anthem of crustiness into a mantra for a group that has played a tremendous role in helping the Red Sox advance within a game of the World Series.
On Wednesday night (and into Thursday morning), Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts offered a line-to-line display of defensive prowess that helped steer the Red Sox to victory. They blanketed the outfield lawn and stole game-changing outs from the Astros that proved pivotal in an 8-6 win in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
“It’s special. We have three center fielders in our outfield at all times,” said Game 5 starter David Price. “I do believe we have the best outfield and I don’t think it’s close.”
A mesmerizing display started in the first inning, when Jose Altuve lifted a fly ball to right field. Off the bat, the ball appeared to be a routine fly, before the cozy dimensions at Minute Maid Park came into play and suggested that a 2-0 Red Sox lead might soon be a tie score.
“I didn’t think Altuve hit it as good as he did,” said Brock Holt. “Then it kept going and going. I kind of thought, ‘OK, that ball’s out of here.’ ”
Certainly the ball was hit high enough and far enough to get into the stands. But Betts ranged to the track, timed his steps perfectly, and rose with the same explosiveness that once captivated Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins, who shook his head in disbelief when he saw an Overton High basketball game in which the 5-foot-9-inch point guard went up through traffic for a baseline jam.
This time, Betts did not come down with the ball. Spectator Troy Caldwell reached for the orb, and in the process, he punched Betts’s glove closed.
Right-field umpire Joe West ruled the play fan interference, having determined (with questionable accuracy) that the ball was still in the field of play at the time of Caldwell’s contact with Betts’s glove. Replay could not make a definitive determination to overrule the call.
Yet regardless of the accuracy of West’s judgment, the mere fact that Betts ranged and elevated to the ball — and seemed all but certain to make the grab but for Caldwell’s intrusion — was extraordinary. Few outfielders could have been in position to elicit the call.
The fact that West could make an assumption is a credit to the exceptional gifts of Betts, who has mastered right field just four years after being moved off second base, a position where his path to the big leagues had been blocked by Dustin Pedroia.
Betts’s next pivotal play may have been even more remarkable. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with Craig Kimbrel freshly in the game in an attempt to record the first six-out save of his career, Astros outfielder Tony Kemp — who grew up playing with Betts in the Nashville area — ambushed a first-pitch fastball and ripped it down the right-field line.
Given Kemp’s speed and where the ball was hit, few right fielders would have both the speed and the audacity to take a straight-line route to the ball. Betts saw the play differently.
“The separator, when it’s hit, your route to the ball and your effort getting to it, you have to be sprinting full speed,” said Betts. “A lot of guys jog after it and just let it be a routine double. But I think, especially our outfield, we try and make those type of plays. That’s why we have some Gold Glove candidates.”
As he so often does, Betts demonstrated a remarkable read and timing to reach the ball before it could hook off the fence. In one motion, Betts grabbed the ball off the ground, made a pirouette, and quickly cocked his arm in a fashion he hones by regularly taking infield ground balls. He fired a laser that popped into Xander Bogaerts’s glove on the fly. That allowed Bogaerts to drop an easy tag to nab Kemp.
“The play of the game,” said Rick Porcello.
And then there was the final play of the game. With Alex Bregman at the plate, the bases loaded, two outs, and Kimbrel sweating his way through the ninth, Andrew Benintendi stood 293 feet from home plate — positioned roughly in line with the left-center-field notch where the fence cuts out to go from intimate to deep.
Bregman pulled a low liner — too soft to hang in the air — to straightaway left. Benintendi had just more than three seconds to cover 45 feet on a ball that was in front of him and to his right. It’s a ball that, according to Statcast, lands for a hit roughly 79 percent of the time.
The danger of trying to make a play was considerable. But Benintendi has achieved a level of confidence and comfort in his ability to make plays while charging the ball. Because of his familiarity with playing a shallow left field — a product of playing in front of the Green Monster that seems to lord over the shortstop — Benintendi is familiar with going all-in on a play without hesitating while contemplating the risk calculus.
“If you need to think about a line [of where to attempt a dive], it’s already too late,” said Benintendi. “I was committed to diving.”
“That’s a do-or-die play,” said Red Sox outfield coach Tom Goodwin. “It takes a lot to say, ‘This is it. If I miss it, it’s tied or we might lose.’ ”