There were two competing books in play in the bottom of the first inning at Fenway Park on Monday night.
One belonged to the Toronto Blue Jays and indeed all of Major League Baseball. It featured a well-understood message: Beat Michael Chavis with four-seam fastballs at the top of the strike zone.
Opposing pitchers entering Monday night had gone to that well 112 times. Chavis was just 4 for 27 (.148) on such pitches while swinging and missing at a startling 40 (36 percent) of them.
The other book belonged to Chavis — the one in which he scribbles furiously after every at-bat, after every game, taking stock of what opposing teams are trying to do to him, and what he in return can do to their plans of attack.
On Monday night, with the Red Sox ahead, 1-0, and the bases loaded, Chavis — who’d already swung through a 1-and-1 four-seamer at the top of the strike zone — understood the script that Toronto starter Trent Thornton was following. He laid off a 2-and-2 four-seamer above the zone to work the count full, then when Thornton went back to that well with another high heater, Chavis did what he had to do.
The result was inglorious, easy to overlook: A foul ball straight back. But with that simple gesture, the rookie had won another opportunity.
“I know that’s something that people are going to attack me with. In that situation, it’s probably the safest pitch to throw,” said Chavis. “If it means fouling it off and trying to get to another one or taking it for a ball, it’s definitely something I’ve been working on. Having done that to earn the next pitch, that’s kind of one of the things I’ve been writing in my book: Earn a pitch to hit. That’s what I did.”
Thornton missed his spot and instead turned loose a 93-mile-per-hour heater in the young infielder’s wheelhouse. Chavis destroyed it, launching his first career grand slam 421 feet to center. The blast — the 16th of the year for Chavis — allowed the Red Sox to play from ahead in an eventual tighter-than-it-needed-to-be 10-8 victory over the Blue Jays.
Chavis continued a pattern in which the Red Sox have made a habit of ambushing opposing starters, claiming at least one first-inning run in 11 of their last 14 contests. Mookie Betts opened the first by lining a double off the Wall against Thornton, extending his hitting streak to seven games, a run in which he’s hitting .448/.486/.690 with six extra-base hits. After a pair of one-out walks, Andrew Benintendi lined a bases-loaded single to right to give the Red Sox a 1-0 advantage, setting the stage for the Chavis blast that put the Red Sox up, 5-0.
Still, that 5-0 lead briefly looked unstable on a night when Rick Porcello looked extremely vulnerable, his fastball often hovering around 88-91 m.p.h. The Red Sox starter allowed a pair of runs in the top of the second on a Billy McKinney homer into the home bullpen on a 90-m.p.h. meatball, and two more on a trio of hits (two singles and a Randal Grichuk double) in the third.
“Lack of execution,” Porcello grimaced.
But after the Jays pecked their way back into a 5-4 game, the Red Sox erupted for another five runs in the third to break the game open against relievers Joe Biagini and Sam Gaviglio, all after Biagini had retired the first two batters of the inning. After a pair of walks sandwiched around a single, Rafael Devers delivered a two-run, two-out single to right, giving him an incredible 21 RBIs against the Blue Jays this year, three shy of the Red Sox single-season record against Toronto.
“I’m hitting pretty well against a lot of clubs this season,” Devers said through a translator. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Toronto or any other team.”
Xander Bogaerts delivered an RBI single to increase the lead to 8-4, and after another walk loaded the bases and ended Gaviglio’s outing, Benintendi greeted Biagini by banging a fastball off the Wall in left for the Red Sox’ last two runs.
Given a 10-4 advantage, Porcello steadied. He employed a kitchen-sink mix of four- and two-seam fastballs, sliders, curveballs, and changeups, creating enough uncertainty to limit the Blue Jays going forward. By the conclusion of his 112 pitches, Porcello had managed to deliver six credible if unspectacular innings, allowing four runs on eight hits and no walks with two strikeouts.
“Some things got a lot better the last three innings of the game, definitely some things I can build off of. I made some adjustments, it was much, much better,” said Porcello.
The righthander explained that he needed to get his delivery “a little more on line with my target and throw the [bodily fluid] out of it.”
The sizable advantage proved necessary. After Marcus Walden delivered a scoreless seventh inning, Ryan Brasier got hammered for four hits while recording just two outs. Two Blue Jays crossed the plate with Brasier in the game, and two more remained on the bases when he exited, manager Alex Cora feeling compelled to turn to Matt Barnes in what had been a blowout.
Barnes allowed a two-run single on a grounder up the middle to Freddy Galvis that narrowed the lead to 10-8, but then got a first-pitch flyout to center by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to end the eighth. Brandon Workman followed by getting three groundouts for a perfect ninth and his fourth save.
Though the 51-43 Red Sox claimed a win against a 35-60 Blue Jays team, Cora acknowledged that the victory hardly was worthy of a bow. Instead, a manager who preached in the early weeks of the season a constant theme that the Red Sox will be fine once again invoked a frequently cited midyear theme.
“If we’re going to pull this off, we have to be better all around,” said Cora. “We won, but we made some mistakes throughout. We’ve got to keep improving. That’s something we’ll keep attacking every day until we get it.”