BOSTON – The fourth incarnation of Yankees-and-Red Sox-do-October began as a sequel to the last. Fourteen years ago, when Boston’s incomprehensible comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit birthed a historic championship, the Red Sox finished the American League Championship Series with aplomb. Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Friday followed the same script: three strikeouts in the top of the first inning followed by a three-run home run in the bottom. Pure dominance.
As the game reached the middle innings and Red Sox ace Chris Sale tired and Boston’s bullpen arrived, what was seemingly obvious heading into this postseason came into far sharper focus: As the Red Sox try to navigate the labyrinth of the AL playoffs and win their fourth World Series in the last 15 years, they’ll do so with a bullpen that comes into each game equipped with a gas can.
While they sprinkled it about Fenway Park, never did the Yankees light the match they needed. And by the end of the night, when Craig Kimbrel shakily closed out the 5-4 victory that gave the Red Sox a one-game-to-nothing lead in the best-of-five series, the panic in Boston all summer – that this 108-win team somehow doesn’t have enough relief pitching – was warranted.
For now, Kimbrel is the only reliable Red Sox reliever – and he allowed a ninth-inning home run to Aaron Judge, which brought New York within one. Kimbrel had come on to get the final out of the eighth after manager Alex Cora called upon Rick Porcello – the Red Sox’s Game 3 starter – to work the second-to-last inning. Even as the bottom of the Yankees’ lineup batted, Cora’s clear lack of trust in his remaining relievers – Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright – was evident.
The specter of July 31 could haunt them. On their way to a the most victories in franchise history, the Red Sox glossed over the need for relief pitching. “We think realistically our bullpen is pretty good,” team president Dave Dombrowski said on the day of the trade deadline. Maybe he still believes it. The sixth and seventh innings weren’t particularly supportive of that statement, though.
Sale had looked strong in shutting down the Yankees through five, and J.D. Martinez’s laser-shot three-run homer in the first off New York starter J.A. Happ staked him a nice lead. Boston added two more runs in the third, and Sale was cruising with a 5-0 advantage until allowing a pair of hits in the sixth and prompting Cora to summon Ryan Brasier.
He gave up a hit, threw a wild pitch, walked a batter and allowed both inherited runs to score. On came Brandon Workman, who worked out of the inning before giving up a run himself in the seventh. The game felt hairy, hairier than it should have, and yet the 39,059 at Fenway ultimately left satiated, the Red Sox having beaten the Yankees for the fifth consecutive postseason game.
Whether that continues may well fall on the Red Sox’s beleaguered bullpen, which will follow David Price, Boston’s Game 2 starter who’s still looking for his first-ever victory in the postseason.
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