HOUSTON – Just before the final, fateful pitch of the 2018 postseason’s best game, Andrew Benintendi consulted the small cheat sheet every Boston Red Sox position player checks to ensure he is properly positioned for the hitter at the plate. The Houston Astros’ best player stood in the batter’s box. The bases were loaded. Boston’s gassed closer was one out from the first six-out save of his career. Minute Maid Park palpitated, certain this was the moment that would make the perfect bookend to a controversial first-inning call whose implications resonated more than 4½ hours later. And amid the cacophony, with countless permutations of plays rattling around his head, Benintendi went ever-so-slightly off-script.
He took 1½ steps in.
“Not a huge amount,” Benintendi told Yahoo Sports. “Just enough.”
Without that step-and-a-half, the sinking line drive Alex Bregman hit to left field would have dropped and tied Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Instead, when Benintendi dove headfirst and extended his right arm, the ball nestled in the pocket of his glove and secured the Red Sox’s 8-6 victory. It gave Boston a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven ALCS. It rescued closer Craig Kimbrel, the wobbly epitome of bend-but-don’t-break this October. And it left a distraught crowd of 43,277 harkening back eight innings earlier, when an apparent Jose Altuve home run was called an out even after the ball hit a fan in the right-field stands.
As with everything in Game 4, it was far more complicated than that. The topsy-turvy, 4-hour, 33-minute affair was ripe with big pitches, bigger hits and the biggest defensive gems. None loomed larger than Benintendi’s binary catch. If he missed it, the Astros would win and tie the series. If he made it, the Red Sox would win and take a commanding lead, with a chance to clinch a World Series berth on Thursday in Houston and two more opportunities after that, if needed, in Boston.
Standing in left, awaiting the 35th pitch of Kimbrel’s night, Benintendi’s mind went into game-theory overdrive. Because Kimbrel is a hard thrower – the pitch was a 97-mph fastball – he teased out a scenario in which Bregman hit the ball over his head. He worried that the carom off the wall that juts out in left field, which features not a flat surface but a scoreboard, could be capricious, particularly with the speedy Tony Kemp liable to score from first. A more optimal outcome, Benintendi thought, was that if Bregman hit the ball hard to left, perhaps he could throw out Correa, the runner on second, at the plate.
“I guess as outfielders we try to run through every scenario when it happens,” Benintendi said. “You know who the baserunners are. It’s second nature at this point. It’s instinctual. It just happens.”
Instinct told him to creep in ever so slightly, and instinct, it turned out, salvaged the Red Sox’s night. After giving up a run in the eighth – and getting bailed out by another incredible corner-outfield play, Mookie Betts’ dart from right field to cut down Kemp as he tried to stretch a leadoff hit into a double – Kimbrel turned in a nitroglycerin ninth inning. He walked the bases loaded, bringing up Bregman, a wildly talented 24-year-old chosen early in the first round of the 2015 draft like Benintendi. A mound visit from Red Sox manager Alex Cora a batter earlier had done little to calm Kimbrel’s nerves, even after Cora urged him to stay calm.
With scheduled Game 5 starter David Price warming in the bullpen, Cora stuck with Kimbrel. Benintendi did one better: He bailed out Kimbrel. As he leapt to his feet, the normally stoic Benintendi let out a yelp of joy and, he later said, “blacked out.” Teammates mobbed him. Second baseman Brock Holt kissed him on the right cheek.
“I gave him a big hug,” Kimbrel said. “He might get a big Christmas present.”
Whatever Benintendi wants he earned. Boston twice had come back from deficits, and it didn’t want to let Game 4 slip away, not after the pivotal call that went its way in the first inning.
In the cozy environs of Minute Maid, hitters can tattoo the Crawford Boxes in left field and flip home runs easily into right. Altuve looked to have done that in the first, despite a valiant effort from Betts, who skied toward the seven-foot wall and extended his arm trying to steal back a home run. Before he could squeeze the ball, Betts’ glove hit a fan and it closed, causing another fan, to the first one’s left, to get hit with the ball. Astros fans celebrated, figuring home run, unaware that right-field umpire Joe West was running down the line, pumping his right fist.
Out, said West, in his 41st full season as a major league umpire. Fan interference. The Astros challenged the call. In such cases, there is a clear threshold: If the fielder reaches into the stands, interference cannot be called unless the fan intentionally hindered the play or reached past the boundary onto the field of play. West believed the latter. The best angle for the review umpire was blocked by an Astros security guard, who leaned into the camera’s view along the outfield fence to get a better look at the play.
Other angles were inconclusive. Some appeared to show the fans over the fence. From others they looked behind it. With no clear and convincing evidence, the replay review ended after 3 minutes, 13 seconds with a ruling: The call stood. It was not upheld, meaning West was correct. It was not overturned, either, which would have meant West was wrong. There simply was no way to determine, which left baseball in an awkward limbo: With a replay system that couldn’t adjudicate one of the most important calls of the season.
After West pumped his fist again to signal out, Altuve returned to the dugout dejected. The Astros were livid, the fans seething. Manager A.J. Hinch stayed on the field to discuss the call. He also knew arguing would wind up with him ejected in the first inning of a vital game.
“There’s no mechanism for me to change their mind, change their interpretation, change the fact that I thought the ball was a row or two into the stands,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not in New York, and I’m not an umpire.”
He stuck around to witness his team scratch back from deficits of its own. The 2-0 lead starter Charlie Morton spotted Boston in the first was halved with the first of Carlos Correa’s two RBI singles. The Astros took a 4-3 lead on a home run by Kemp, lost it the next half-inning, regained it a half-inning after that and gave it away for good a half-inning after that, the top of the sixth, when Jackie Bradley Jr. walloped a two-run home run to put Boston ahead, 6-5.
It was Bradley’s third crucial two-out hit in as many games. The first, a three-run double in Game 2, pushed Boston ahead to even the series. The next, a grand slam off Astros closer Roberto Osuna, blew Game 3 wide open. And this one, off rookie Josh James, gave Boston a lead it wouldn’t relinquish and imbued the game with what looked like a signature moment.
At least until Benintendi turned left field into his personal playground. He understood the Red Sox’s imperative: Win Game 4 and put the pressure squarely on the Astros. Most of it was there anyway. They’d spent the previous 24 hours deflecting accusations of cheating after they were caught sending a member of their traveling party to surveil the Red Sox’s dugout during Game 1 of the ALCS after they’d done the same in Game 3 of their Division Series against Cleveland. Major League Baseball cleared Houston of wrongdoing, causing consternation around the game and adding even more scrutiny to how they played on the field.
Houston showed up well enough beyond Altuve’s home run that wasn’t. It just couldn’t muster that final hit, the one that would have made Game 5’s matchup of Houston’s Justin Verlander against Price that much more intriguing. With Boston’s Chris Sale scheduled to start Game 6 following his hospitalization for a stomach illness, enough questions surround his well-being to wonder how, exactly, the Red Sox would have handled a split in the first four games instead of a cushion.
That, like Altuve’s home run, is merely a hypothetical. What’s real was Kimbrel’s save, Bradley’s home run, Boston’s victory. Game 4 was close. It was fraught with peril. And for the Red Sox, it was, like those 1½ steps Andrew Benintendi took in, just enough.
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