For one sun-splashed afternoon, nothing else mattered. The cacophony of a Red Sox season gone awry — their mediocre record, their place in the standings, the increasingly dubious claims to being involved in a pennant race, the struggles of the pitching staff, the August offensive decline, the shortcomings of execution — washed away in one liberating inning at Fenway Park.
A delay of 21,018 minutes gave way to a conclusion that required just 12 minutes, the Red Sox claiming a 5-4 walkoff victory Thursday afternoon over the Royals in the 10th (and only) frame of a meeting more than two weeks in the making.
Brock Holt, who delivered the winning hit by drilling a hit down the left-field line off lefthander Richard Lovelady, punctuated the victory after rounding first base by sprinting away from his teammates and sliding exuberantly across home plate, the sort of display so rarely on display this year. It required unique circumstances to produce it.
“That was probably the most fun I think probably all of us have had playing baseball,” said Holt.
The Red Sox and Royals met at 1:05, a rendezvous memorable for the interminable wait for its arrival and the brevity of its duration. The clubs had played to a 4-4 tie on Aug. 7 before a deluge forced the tarp onto the field at 10:47 p.m., a storm that would not allow the teams to resume play that night.
The Royals left Fenway after midnight on Aug. 8 after what was supposed to be the conclusion of their first and only series of the season at Fenway. The deadlock — suspended with Red Sox lefthander Josh Taylor on the mound and a 2-1 count to the first hitter of the inning, catcher Meibrys Viloria — necessitated a brief return to Boston by the Royals, who arrived from Baltimore early on Thursday morning.
The return trip represented a novelty. The Red Sox hadn’t taken part in a suspended game that was resumed more than one day after the start of the contest since 1968. Strange playing conditions on Thursday inspired strange thoughts.
“On the way to the ballpark,” confessed Red Sox manager Alex Cora, “it crossed my mind at one point, the way things have been going, we might play 16 innings now.”
Yet there was also a chance of a contest that would last mere minutes. The Red Sox, mindful of the awkwardness of playing baseball in a nearly empty setting, opted to open the park and turn a potentially funereal atmosphere into a festive one. Fans ages 18 and under could secure free entry; those over that age could purchase admission for a meeting that might last as little as four batters for $5, an amount that would be donated to The Jimmy Fund.
The crowd responded to both the uniqueness of the day and the atmosphere — music playing almost all the way to the first pitch — with energy and enthusiasm. An impressive 16,441 ticketed customers (1,301 of them returning with tickets from Aug. 7, another 9,125 paying attendees, and 6,015 beneficiaries of freebies) generated a buzz.
“The best crowd of the season,” said Sox third base coach Carlos Febles.
Still, the Red Sox could not ignore that they had a task at hand. The teams had tweaked their rosters since the first nine innings, creating opportunities for players to participate who weren’t in the big leagues on Aug. 7. With the game in extra innings, every play featured a degree of urgency.
“It was kind of a do-or-die, it felt like,” said Holt. “If we got three outs, all we needed was a run, and that’s kind of a cool feeling knowing you can end it in one inning.”
Taylor returned to the mound for the Sox. Kansas City elected to send righthanded pinch hitter Nick Dini to the plate in place of the lefthanded Viloria, a move that Taylor admitted caught him off guard. Yet when Dini swung at a 94-mile-per-hour fastball over the plate at 1:05, a rocket found the glove of first baseman Mitch Moreland for the first out of the inning.
Taylor quickly followed that out with two more, a strikeout of Ryan O’Hearn and a ground out by pinch hitter Bubba Starling — a player who hadn’t been with the Royals on Aug. 7, who was replacing another player who had since been let go by the organization (outfielder Billy Hamilton).
“We had to be prepared for everything. There were different guys on the roster, the possibility of bringing in a righty [to replace Taylor] right away,” noted Cora. “In the dugout, it’s like, ‘It’s the 10th inning’ — just to make sure feelings don’t get offended because I hit or run for you. It’s the 10th inning. It’s weird that it felt that way.”
The Red Sox had visions of Andrew Benintendi hitting a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 10th, he instead struck out against Lovelady. Yet the wait for a winning rally proved brief, as Christian Vazquez hammered a double to center. Pinch runner Chris Owings (a member of the Royals earlier this year who was with Triple A Pawtucket on Aug. 7) replaced Vazquez. Pinch hitter Sam Travis, asked to bat for Moreland against a lefthander, was intentionally walked.
With two on, the stage was set for Holt to line a slider down the line to the opposite field. When his hit landed, the crowd and the Red Sox erupted in one of the most joyous celebrations of this season.
Taylor (1-1) notched the first win of his big league career. And the Red Sox, after the disappointment of being swept over two games by the Phillies on Tuesday and Wednesday, boarded a cross-country flight to San Diego buoyed by having taken part in something memorable and refreshing in a season where such adjectives have rarely applied.
“For those kids [who came to the park for free], it’s probably their first big league inning. That’s what they’re going to remember,” Cora said. “We’ve got to remind them that this is not the pace we play. Usually we play four-hour games.”