Nine thoughts on the Red Sox’ Division Series-clinching 4-3 victory over the Yankees . . .
1. I’ll remember this next time, whenever there is a next time. Winning a meaningful game against the Yankees is rarely easy, even when for so many innings it seems to be trending that way. Be assured, there will be plot twists and tensions your baseball mind cannot even imagine. Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS was a Red Sox rout, you say? Sure was. Cathartic too. And you were terrified when Pedro Martinez came into the game, the Yankees fans’ murmur turned to a taunt, it seemed like the cruelest trick yet might happen, and you know it. That’s the trick and the set up — it’s never easy, even when the end results suggests it kind of was — and the Red Sox’ clinching 4-3 victory in Game 4 of the American League Division Series is just the latest example.
2. The Red Sox got five excellent innings from Rick Porcello, which was not much of a surprise. They got shutout innings from Matt Barnes, Ryan Brazier, and ace-turned-temporary-setup-man Chris Sale, which was a surprise. And closer Craig Kimbrel — one of the most statistically dominant closers in baseball history — came in for the ninth, his usual domain of dominance, and don’t you know it, he almost gave it away. He allowed two runs, the second coming on a deep fly ball by Gary Sanchez that appeared on contact to be a walk-off grand slam and a stroke of absolute devastation for the Red Sox. The final out, a beautiful bang-bang play at first base on a Gleyber Torres slow roller, had to be confirmed by replay, because of course it did.
3. Some might say the only true surprise is that the Red Sox survived and advanced to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 2013. But it was stressful, and it was further confirmation that the Red Sox, who have won 7 of their last 8 playoff games against the Yankees, are no longer jinxed, doomed, or an inferior operation. They won, somehow, and now and again it’s left to the Yankees to deal with a winter of what-ifs. You can exhale now. It all changed in ’04. It has not changed back yet.
4. The win goes to Porcello, the first of his postseason career — and remember, he was great in relief in Game 1. The save goes not to Kimbrel — good Lord, did he have Sox fans longing for ’13 Koji Uehara, ’07 Jonathan Papelbon, and ’04 Keith Foulke — but to first baseman Steve Pearce, who stretched every muscle and tendon in his body to maximum length to snag Eduardo Nunez’s throw for the final out. It was an exceptional defensive play by a player who does not have an exceptional defensive reputation. Honorable mention goes to catcher Christian Vazquez, who probably had at least two near-death experiences while keeping Kimbrel’s haywire sliders in front of him in the ninth.
5. Porcello suffocated the Yankees through the first four innings but ran into his first jam in the fifth. Gary Sanchez crushed a double (are we sure this guy hit .186 this year?), and after an 89-foot infield single by Torres, Brett Gardner brought in Sanchez for the Yankees first run. Porcello got out of it, but not before an epic nine-pitch duel with Aaron Hicks that felt as if it took about 40 pitches. Hicks hit a long foul to right that for a few seconds looked like it would make the game 4-3. But Porcello got him to pop out, in what would be his final pitch of the night.
6. I’ll admit it: I did not like pulling Porcello after five innings, during which he’d allowed just four hits and a run on 65 pitches. Given the Red Sox bullpen’s well-earned reputation for occasionally dousing gasoline on a ballgame and waving around a match in the middle innings, I thought Alex Cora should have tried to squeeze another inning out of him, though he clearly missed his spots a few times in the fifth. In baseball, the unexpected can get you out of nowhere, but in this case, the unexpected was a positive, with Barnes and Brazier getting through the sixth and seventh innings with little suspense.
7. But Cora, man. He knows stuff. He got the usual sports-radio yelping for deciding to start Ian Kinsler at second base over Game 3 cyclist Brock Holt, a choice that at the very least was defensible given that Sabathia held lefties to a .180/.339/.230 slash line this year. He also put Nunez back at third base after going with Rafael Devers in Game 3 (he had a pair of hits). Perhaps most surprisingly, he gave Vazquez a second straight start behind the plate instead of Sandy Leon, even thoughVazquez hadn’t caught Porcello all season.
8. So how did it work? You know how it worked: Just how Cora wanted it to when he wrote out his lineup card. Kinsler, who came maybe 15 feet away from a grand slam in the first inning, gave the Red Sox a 2-0 lead in the third on a crushed double to left just over the glove of Gardner. (Gardner is listed at 5 feet 10 inches. If that height was legitimate, he would have caught it.) Nunez doubled him Kinsler in for the third Red Sox run, and made an extraordinary throw to end the game. And besides his stellar performance defensively in the ninth, Vazquez hit his first homer since June in the fourth, putting the Sox up 4-0.
9. You know who else had a great couple of days? Dave Dombrowski. Midseason acquisitions Kinsler and Pearce made important contributions Tuesday. Midseason acquisition Nathan Eovaldi was brilliant in Game 3. And the main accusation against him – that he didn’t acquire bullpen help at the deadline – did not factor into the Game 4 victory, with his guy Ryan Brasier pitching like a grizzled veteran of big moments. Great victory for him. Better victory for the Red Sox. Don’t know about you, but after this, my nerves will be ready for another Red Sox-Yankees series in, oh, about 14 years.