Commentary

The Red Sox remain deeply flawed, but they remain so the first of baseball’s final four

"We've got a ton to digest right now. Heck, we've been trying and failing since February."

Kiké Hernández, Red Sox celebrate
Kiké Hernández delivered the sacrifice fly that scored the series-clinching run Sunday. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Stop me if this reminds you of anything, but the Red Sox on Monday night raced into command position, slowly frittered it away, then made every play they needed to pull it from the fire at the end.

Totally out of character, right?

“Old school baseball right there. Fundamental baseball,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora on the single, sac bunt, infield single, sac fly combo that clinched a 6-5 win and dismissed the reigning AL champion Rays in Game 4 at Fenway Park. “We won the ALDS playing good, fundamental baseball.”

Straight from a Tom Emanski video, this crew. Tabbed for 80-odd wins and fourth place by just about every person who bothered to hazard a guess, the 2021 Red Sox will be one of the last four teams standing. Not the Yankees, Jays, or Tampa. The Martín-Pérez-was-our-stalwart-last-season Red Sox.

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They will tell you they saw this coming. Or, at the very least, that they saw this possible. And who, frankly, is anyone to tell them otherwise on anything at this point?

“When I signed here, I looked at the roster and I knew we had a bunch of really good players. Winning players that have done it before,” Kiké Hernández told Fox’s Ken Rosenthal. “I knew that we just had to hang in there until we got [Chris] Sale back, and after we got Sale, I knew we were going to become a really dangerous team. And here we are.”

Yup. Just a straight line to salvation. Only real hiccup was them not wearing their yellow jerseys on Monday, because that’s a thing now in this year sprung from nowhere.

Sale threw one terrible inning against 100-win Tampa, and in his last 3⅔ has allowed 10 runs. The same number Garrett Whitlock, all of his 75-odd innings out of Double-A, has given up since the Fourth of July.

“It was a cool situation to come into, just trying to get outs right away,” Whitlock told reporters on being tasked to defuse man on second, none out in the eighth after Tampa tied Game 4. “It was a lot of fun.”

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Fifteen pitches to get six outs on Sunday. Cora warmed Sale for the ninth, but mercifully stuck with Whitlock, who cameras caught in the onfield celebration soaking it in with a mile-wide smile, All-Star closer Matt Barnes hanging on his shoulder.

Life imitating art, given Barnes also contributed one rousing inning in the series. A crowning glory until Friday, from a season already a success, no matter what happens with either Houston or the White Sox in the AL Championship Series.

If history remembers anything from this ALDS, we know it’ll be Hunter’s Hipcheck in Game 3. (Ironic, given Renfroe was otherwise invisible.) The Sox hit .341 with nine homers and a .915 OPS in the four games, and that’s with Tampa having shut them out in Game 1.

And yet, this is a story about three pitchers. Tanner Houck, who threw five magnificent innings in relief of Sale to win Game 2; Whitlock, who cleaned up for Hansel Robles in Game 3 on Saturday before finishing off the clincher; and Nick Pivetta, who spared the bullpen with 4⅔ innings in the first game and threw a lights-out, amped-up four in Game 3 to set the stage for Christian Vázquez’s walkoff.

Two rookies and Pivetta, who the Phillies gave up on last summer. The mind races to the future, same as it does seeing Chaim Bloom’s team four wins from the World Series years ahead of schedule and chock full of pieceparts he acquired.

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Let’s not do that yet. We’ve got a ton to digest right now. Heck, we’ve been trying and failing since February.

Cora’s tears in the postgame party were probably the only predictable thing, sharing a long embrace with his daughter Camila and his voice cracking in an MLB Network interview.

“She suffered a lot, and it was my fault,” Cora bluntly noted regarding his year-long exile from the sport that has defined his life.

That “horrible decision” he made will be front and center again if Houston advances, the AL pennant perhaps coming down to the two teams at the heart of the league’s sign-stealing scandal. I’m sure they’re thrilled, not that it bothers most anyone in Boston, John Henry speaking for plenty when he slapped down a reporter who surmised it was tough to bring back Cora.

“It was easy,” the owner of the Red Sox (and Boston Globe Media Partners, including Boston.com) interrupted. When the unnamed reporter tried to bring up critics of the move, Henry broke in again: “We don’t listen to them.”

That was safely apparent when Henry essentially put Mookie Betts in Dodger blue 20 months ago, which was also the last time before Sunday he didn’t duck questions from reporters.

Inside his clubhouse, the crew he showed his inside-out pockets to this winter and at the trade deadline celebrated. We watched them spray and dance in the cozy home clubhouse, Alex Verdugo shockingly at the center of the party, until Fox finally cut to commercial.

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A break which included, what else, MLB’s PSA urging everyone to “join the team” and get the COVID-19 vaccine. Another thing these Red Sox aren’t poster children for.

Can we really just brush it all aside? I do not expect this to be a question a lot of fans give a whit about, even if I think seven ALCS trips in 20 years allows us to be more introspective than most. It’s hard when so much of the negativity around this group has been ginned-up-for-attention claptrap, needlessly inflammatory and disingenuous from the jump.

I don’t know the answer, but I suppose that’s fitting. The clearest thing about this group is the success.

These are impossible riches we’ve been gifted by this organization, countless hours of enjoyment whether you’re stuffed into Fenway or watching from home.

Betts feels like a million years ago. Bloom scouting in Portland while the Sox were getting swept in New York feels almost as long. We collectively swore them off, a vow that lasted exactly one year, with NESN ratings back double what they were in 2020.

We’ve been swept up again by the best kind of team: The surprise contender we never saw coming. The one that, seven months after it seemed like they’d go quietly into history, has had the answer to every question asked it.

“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Hernández said on TV. “Don’t stop until we win.”

Until they do stop, who can tell them they’re wrong?

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