ANAHEIM, Calif. — The time for blueprints passed long ago. The 2019 season departed from its anticipated form in the first days of the Red Sox season and, through five months, never resembled either the 2018 edition or expectations for this bunch.
If the Red Sox are to pull off an improbable September surge, it will have to come through unexpected contributions with plenty of improvisation. With stars performing to their fullest abilities, but also with supporting cast members who deliver performances that no one anticipated.
And so, it seemed appropriate that the Red Sox opened September with precisely the sort of seat-of-their-pants victory that they hope will characterize much of the season’s final month. On a day when returning starter David Price lasted just two innings to conclude a series where their relievers totaled 25, the Red Sox took the rubber match of a three-game survival set against the Angels, 4-3.
With the win, the Sox headed back to Fenway Park from their final Western swing of the season with a 6-2 record, and an 11-4 mark since Aug. 13.
“It didn’t look pretty,” exhaled manager Alex Cora, “but we got it done.”
In the early innings, the Red Sox enjoyed a flicker of hope that Sunday might follow a relaxed course. Mookie Betts continued to play the role of catalyst, lining a changeup to center off Angels lefty Andrew Heaney to lead off the first — Betts opened all three games in Anaheim with a hit. A pair of wild pitches advanced Betts to third before Xander Bogaerts yanked a full-count changeup to left for an RBI single.
Two innings later, the top of the order gave the Red Sox breathing room. Rafael Devers snapped an 0-for-11 skid with a single to left — this one on yet another Heaney two-strike changeup — and then trotted home when Bogaerts blasted a change into the rocks in center for his 31st homer of the season.
The two-run blast gave the Red Sox a 3-0 lead and gave the shortstop 103 RBI, tying his 2018 career-high. He later added a double, with his 3-for-4 game improving his line to .312/.388/.580.
“He’s having an MVP type of year,” said Price.
One batter later, J.D. Martinez continued his incredible late-summer run, demolishing a Heaney first-pitch curveball for a solo homer to left. The launch was the 34th of the year by Martinez and his 17th of the season off a lefty – second most to the 18 that David Ortiz blasted in 2006 in Red Sox history.
Martinez, who went 1 for 2 and walked twice on Sunday, finished the eight-game trip 14 for 31, with six homers while driving in 18. He has 15 homers in 36 games dating to July 22.
“Pretty good roadtrip to say the least,” said Cora.
Yet the 4-0 lead still seemed tenuous, given a weekend series in which the Sox had twice blown late-innings leads while asking their bullpen to assume Herculean workloads. Particularly given the limitations on Price in his first start since a wrist cyst sidelined him Aug. 4.
Price lacked power, with an 89-91 m.p.h. fastball, but showed the ability to mix and command his pitches over two scoreless innings in which he allowed one hit and walked a batter. To the lefthander, the difference compared to before his injured list stint was obvious.
“I was one side of the plate before I went on the injured list. And today, I made a lot of good fastballs on the inside to righties,” said Price. “Just being able to get the ball on the right side of the plate, that’s what I want.”
But with his pitch count at 45 after two laborious innings, the Red Sox turned the last seven over to their bullpen. In particular, to several players who’d been called up on Sunday to capitalize on the expanded rosters. Travis Lakins (2 innings, 2 runs), Ryan Weber (2 scoreless innings), and Hector Velazquez (a scoreless seventh aided by a searing Brian Goodwin liner that found the glove of Sam Travis at first for an unassisted double play) steered the Sox within six outs of victory.
They put an advantage into the hands of their highest-leverage relievers, though that still came with no guarantees. Matt Barnes, asked to pitch on a third straight day for just the third time this year, allowed a leadoff homer to Justin Upton in the eighth, but closed the inning with a 4-3 lead still in hand thanks to a pair of strikeouts.
That, in turn, put the game in the hands of Brandon Workman, who’d blown a save opportunity on Friday night that set in motion a 15-inning marathon. This time, Workman completed the task, working around hitting Mike Trout with two out to induce a harmless Goodwin flyout to center and secure his 10th save.
Exhausted, the Red Sox exhaled on their way back to Boston, looking forward to Monday’s off-day, but mindful that a sizable task remains in front of them.
“It’s definitely tough, but we’re making a push here,” said Barnes. “It’s what you’ve got to do.”
With the win, the Red Sox moved within 5½ games of the Rays, five of Cleveland, and 4½ of Oakland with 25 games to play. They remain a longshot, but one that has not lost hope of starting to find some answers in a season of riddles.
“We definitely need to have the best month of the season, and probably in the last two seasons,” said Bogaerts. “[But] as that number keeps going down, we’re more optimistic.”
“Nothing is impossible in this game,” added Cora. “I’ve been saying it all along, there are different ways to get to the World Series. We took the difficult road. We’re ready for it.”