To understand how the Red Sox got here, hosting Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night at Fenway Park, it is helpful to take a small step backward, to a pivotal moment in their pennant-clinching win against the Houston Astros.
Join us at the plate at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, where J.D. Martinez stood in the third inning of a scoreless game. The Red Sox slugger was in a tough spot. He wasn’t producing the way he wanted to against the same franchise that once cut him loose. He hadn’t hit a home run since the Red Sox’ first game of the playoffs. He was facing Astros ace Justin Verlander, who had never surrendered a postseason home run in this ballpark.
Martinez was down to his last strike, behind in the count, 0 and 2, when the righthanded Verlander unleashed a vicious slider. The ball dropped below Martinez’s knees as it crossed the plate. He checked his swing. Verlander thought he’d struck him out. Home plate umpire Chris Guccione disagreed.
Martinez had another chance.
He made it count.
On the very next pitch, Martinez sent Verlander’s hanging curveball deep into the left-field seats. The Red Sox had a lead they would not relinquish. Six innings and three more runs later, they were World Series-bound.
“A homer — how many times do you see that?” teammate Steve Pearce said this week. “That’s exactly the thing with this team. When you get us down, you better kick us when we’re down or else. If you give us another life, we’re going to find some way to chop you down like a tree.”
Relentless. Defined in the dictionary as “oppressively constant; incessant; unrelenting.” Defined on the baseball field by the 2018 Red Sox.
Like waves crashing onto the beach, over and over again, retreating and regrouping to do it all again, undeterred by any obstacles, so do these Red Sox churn. Bad loss? No problem. Get the next one. That’s what the Red Sox did after losing Game 2 of the Division Series at home to the Yankees, and what they did again after losing Game 1 of the AL Championship Series at home to the Astros.
Bad at-bat? No worries. Let the next guy do it. That’s what they did in handing the ALCS MVP trophy to Jackie Bradley Jr., who happens to bat last in their order.
They never stop. They are relentless.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who led his team to a World Series championship a year ago, couldn’t stop using the word in the aftermath of this year’s failed attempt to defend that title, when his major league-best pitching staff proved no match for a Red Sox lineup that wore it to shreds, when his own hitters couldn’t manage to dent a Red Sox bullpen that was suspect all year, when the Red Sox’ stellar defense stole outs with leaping catches by Mookie Betts and sliding ones by Andrew Benintendi, when even embattled Red Sox starter David Price joined the party by pitching a gem in the clinching Game 5.
This was Hinch after that game:
“They have the most wins in the league for a reason. They’re as complete a team as we are. And their at-bats are really exceptional. And that’s not taking away from their pitching. They pitched well. Their bullpen stepped up when they needed to.
“They have tremendous balance. They put pressure on you from the very beginning. They don’t concede any at-bats. They never got off our fastballs, and we couldn’t quite . . . they laid off tough breaking balls. They do it right. And that’s why it’s hard to get 27 outs against them.
“So I think when the season started, there was a great unknown of how they were going to adapt to a lot of the changes that were made. The talent was there. But they had to go out and play and prove it. And then when people doubted them, you know, it seemed like they got better. And they never stopped. They never stopped coming at you. They’re a relentless group.”
No one knows it better than Pearce. Traded to the Red Sox back on June 28, Pearce has a rare distinction. As only the second player to suit up for every team in the American League East (Kelly Johnson was the first), Pearce has been on the other side of facing this team.
“I think what we bring, that might be probably the best thing, what we bring every night is the unsexy stuff that’s not talked about,” Pearce said. “It’s not in the box score. We bring the other stuff that just beats down other teams that nobody even realizes. The home runs, the averages, they see that, but they don’t see the other stuff.
“When I played on other teams, it was almost like you have got to be perfect to beat [the Red Sox]. Are they beatable? Yes. But you can’t let a ball drop in, you have to make those plays, the baserunning, you have to take the extra base. You have to make every routine play. You make an error and the next guy has a 13-pitch at-bat for a walk and the next thing you know you see everything else happening, and they start to go, ‘Oh crap.’ ”
It’s not an easy quality to quantify, nor is it possible to bottle it up. But it is contagious. From the moment Martinez joined this team, signing as a free agent not long before spring training opened, he recognized it. And he felt at home.
“I don’t know why, but it’s more like the character and the way everyone is here,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’ve shown all year, that’s how we play the game, really.
“It doesn’t matter how much we’re down, or they’re up, we never really throw at-bats away. We’re ready for the next at-bat, the next challenge.
“At the beginning of the year, you kind of saw it. I saw it, like, ‘Dude, these guys don’t give up.’ That’s a hard trait. I take pride personally in never giving an at-bat away, and then coming here I think everybody was like that. I blended in well.”
“They’re playing with a sense of urgency the whole postseason,” manager Alex Cora said. “Starters, relievers, position players, we like to use the expression, ‘We’re all in.’ And they are. They are all in. That’s cool to see.”
For fans, yes. For opponents? Exhausting.