LOS ANGELES – Hitting a blur is supposed to be the hardest task in professional sports, and so the notion of amplifying the degree of difficulty is hard to fathom. Yet pinch-hitting does just that, representing not just the typical challenges of timing up a baseball’s path across the plate but also doing so at a time when a player hasn’t been plugged into the rhythm of the game.
The average major league hitter this year had a .248 average, .318 OBP, and .409 slugging mark. The average pinch-hitter owned a .212/.300/.339 line. Red Sox manager Alex Cora – often a pinch-hitter in his playing career – understands not the existence of those numbers but why the disparity exists, leading him to a conclusion.
“The manager didn’t believe in pinch-hitting early in the season,” Cora conceded. “I thought pinch-hitting was a tough spot, a tough at-bat.”
Yet on Saturday night, playing under National League rules that encouraged the use of pinch-hitters in place of the pitcher’s spot and in other spots hopeful of getting a quick strike in place of offensively challenged catchers, Cora used pinch-hitters aggressively. And in the end, the behind-the-scenes work of Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers played an enormous role in a 9-6 Red Sox comeback victory in Game 4 of the World Series that moved the team within a game of a championship.
The success of the veteran Moreland and the just-turned-22-year-old Devers offered a window into an offense that has propelled the 2018 Red Sox to 118 victories thus far. It is a team built not just with its stars but with depth that creates wave after wave of offensive threats. The team features a blend of youth and veterans who have committed together to the behind-the-scenes work to prepare for a game’s critical moments, something that has allowed the team to excel in the late innings and deliver startling comebacks throughout the season. Saturday represented a dazzling one.
The batting cage in Dodger Stadium is a bit of a hike from the visitor’s dugout. PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman worked with pinch-hitters as they prepared to enter games starting in the middle innings. There are different ways of preparing – coaches who throw, one machine that simulates fastballs, another that gears hitters for breaking balls.
“We’re like a barber shop in that cage. Whatever they need, we give them whatever kind of haircut they want,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. “If we’ve got a guy that’s spinning the ball, we might get the curveball machine. If we get a guy who’s throwing with a lot of velocity, we get the velocity machine. We had that going tonight.”
Barkett didn’t know the specific velocity at which hitters were preparing, but the machine was cranked up, and after facing the offerings from a distance of roughly 40 feet from the hitters, hitters weren’t going to have an issue with bat speed by the time they stepped into the box. “After they faced the machine, the ball was looking nice and big for them,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, who was running back and forth to check on the hitters as they prepared (“A lot of cardio tonight,” Barkett chuckled) physically for their entry into the games. “It was a good setup for us.”
When the Dodgers pulled Rich Hill from the game with one out in the seventh inning, replacing him first with lefty Scott Alexander (who issued a four-pitch walk to Brock Holt) and then righty Ryan Madson, the Red Sox were ready to flip the lineup switch. They wanted their lefties to take their shots at Madson, who’d already allowed five inherited runners to score in the series.
Jackie Bradley Jr. got the first shot as a pinch-hitter in place of Christian Vazquez, just missing an 84 mph changeup down the middle (one of three changeups Madson threw in a four-pitch at-bat) and popping it up to second for the second out. And so, with the Sox trailing 4-0, it was Moreland’s turn.
Moreland wasn’t rushing to organize his thoughts as he headed to the box to face Madson. Conversations about pinch-hitting scenarios occur not just in a single inning but for several that precede it and sometimes even prior to games. Cora knows the value of preparing, and so he helps his players to be ready for situations before games even start.
“Alex communicates with those guys so well,” said hitting coach Tim Hyers, noting that players are aware the night before a game of who’s starting and who is not. “I really believe that when he does that, he’s also talking to the guys that are on the bench. Be ready for this situation. This might happen.
“He communicates throughout the day, and even during the game, ‘Hey, be ready in the fifth inning or sixth inning, I might do this if the situation comes to play.’ And I think the guys feel confident that the manager’s got them prepared, but also that he’s got their back, and he believes in them because he’s putting them in that situation.”
Moreland is one of the perhaps the most trusted pinch-hitter on the team. He has shown an advanced ability to gameplan for relievers in late-inning situations, as when he hit a first-pitch grand slam off A’s reliever Emilio Pagan in April. When he stepped into the box, the Red Sox had confidence that he could deliver a difference-making moment.
“His preparation is second to none as far as getting ready to pinch-hit,” said Barkett. “He had a plan against Madson.”
“I saw him throw a couple of changeups to Jackie up in the zone. I decided why not sit on that one first pitch?” Moreland explained. “And when he threw it, I saw it pretty good, and put a good swing on it.”
Madson did indeed throw a first-pitch changeup in the upper third of the strike zone, and Moreland didn’t need to wait. He crushed the offering, his three-run homer to right landing well up into the bleachers and giving the Red Sox new life in the game. A lopsided 4-0 affair become a taut 4-3 contest, collars tightening on the Dodgers. One inning later, Steve Pearce tied it with a solo homer, thus setting the stage for the ninth.
Brock Holt bounced a one-out double to the opposite field, down the left field line. And so, with a chance to win the game, the Sox turned to the baby-faced Devers, three days removed from his 22nd birthday, to face reliever Dylan Floro in place of catcher Sandy Leon.
Entering Saturday, Devers had seven career pinch-hitting plate appearances (five in the regular season, two in the playoffs). He’d never put a ball in play, going 0-for-6 with six strikeouts and a walk. Yet that history didn’t stop him from anticipating his opportunity.
“I was just ready for my moment to come, whenever that may be,” Devers said through a translator. “Being in the National League you’ve got to be ready from the first inning with obviously the pitchers hitting. So I just wanted to be ready for whatever the situation was.”
In Game 3 of the World Series, Devers had lapsed into bad habits. He looked, Cora observed, like someone who wanted to hit four homers on a swing, rather than someone who was under control and able to handle all pitch types. But before Game 4, he seemed like himself – calm, composed, prepared to help.
On the bench, the Red Sox coaching staff discussed the matchup possibilities with Floro on the mound in the ninth. If there was a runner in scoring position, the team wanted Devers.
“We liked the matchup and there was a ton of confidence that he’d put it in play,” said Hyers.
At the start of the ninth, Barkett (who is bilingual) laid out a plan with Devers – a reflection of the evolution of the young third baseman.
“Throughout this season he’s grown up a lot. Talking to him in April about gameplanning was difficult. Talking to him now in October about gameplanning is easier,” said Barkett. “We all agreed it was going to be him [to pinch-hit] at that time. That’s when I went right over to him, ‘Hey, you’re going to face this guy, this is what he’s got, this is what we’re going to look for, this is is what you don’t, this is his trap, this is where our hitting options are.’
“He had a plan up there,” added Barkett. “He knew what the pitcher had. We prepared him, he did his work to prepare, and was ready.”
Floro attacked with two straight pitches down and away, the first a two-seamer, the second a changeup. Devers – prone to chasing – did not do so, establishing a 2-0 count. He had a hitter’s count, though the Red Sox remained uncertain whether Devers would lapse into overswinging in such a moment or if he’d stay under control.
“We’re hoping and praying like hell he doesn’t try to hit it nine miles out of Dodger Stadium,” said Barkett. “All we need is a knock up the middle.”
Devers gave them just that. On the third pitch, Floro again worked off the plate away, but this time, his changeup was elevated. Devers – prone to getting pull-happy and overswinging – stayed under control with a liner up the middle. A strikingly mature at-bat from a young player had given the team a 5-4 lead.
If there was any doubt about Devers’ youth, however, it was soon erased. Exuberant, Devers ran to the dugout to celebrate with his teammates during a mound visit that he evidently thought was a pitching change. It was not, and so teammates and first-base coach Tom Goodwin smirked as they waved the beaming Devers back to the bag.
There was joy in the moment on the way to a 9-6 victory for the team, the culmination of so many elements that have been staples of the team’s culture – the commitment to developing young players into mature ones, the communication between players and coaches to be ready for key moments, the belief that preparation and work can permit the team to succeed, the application of information (whether advance scouting, analytics, or the players’ own recognition of patterns), and the belief that the team is never out of a game so long as the final out hasn’t been recorded.
Confronted with some of the most difficult tasks in the game, the Red Sox once again thrived – as they had earlier in the World Series when Eduardo Nunez homered as a pinch-hitter for Devers. And as a result, the team now sits one victory from a title.