BOSTON – Fifteen minutes. That’s all it took. The half-inning that embodied the Boston Red Sox’s verging-on-historic season – the one that secured them a 4-2 victory in Game 2 of the World Series and sent the Los Angeles Dodgers home in search of a pulse – was not fancy. There were no extra-base hits, no triple-digit rockets, no embellishments aside from the crooked number on the scoreboard.
The beauty was its simplicity. And, of course, the two-games-to-none lead it gave the Red Sox. If this was indeed a send-off to the 38,454 who packed Fenway Park, it was proper. All year the Red Sox have preyed on the tiniest opening, feasted on the vulnerable. Even against the antitheses of weak this October – the already-defeated, 100-win-plus New York Yankees and Houston Astros, and now the Dodgers – the Red Sox foraged for good pitches, fought for good plate appearances and strung together rally after rally.
This is the anatomy of the latest – and maybe their best yet.
“We have a plan, man. Everybody follows the plan. If we stick with the plan, it’s going to work.”
Christian Vázquez is 28 years old. This is his fourth season in the major leagues. He is on the Red Sox because of his catching prowess. Among the 313 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances this season, Vázquez’s adjusted OPS ranked 312th. So to hear him talk about a plan, following a plan, sticking with a plan and it working – well, Charlie Brown always has a plan to kick the football, right?
Over the first two minutes of his at-bat in the bottom of Game 2’s fifth inning, Vázquez had taken a curveball for a strike, swung through a cutter for another, fouled off a cutter to stay alive and stared at a fastball that came close to nicking the outside corner. Umpire Kerwin Danley stifled his strike-three signal. Dodgers starter Hyun-jin Ryu, who had cruised through the first four innings and induced a pair of quick outs in the fifth, came set again, ready to deliver his 59th pitch.
Vazquez choked up. That’s what he does with two strikes. He thought of his plan: “I was looking for right field.” Controlling the bat? Taking a pitch the opposite way? These sounded positively anachronistic, and yet Vázquez’s mindfulness reminded him: “That’s my game. I’m not a homer guy. That’s my strength: go to right field. And it works.”
It worked because Ryu left a cutter on the outside corner, and Vazquez feathered it oppo at 9:58. “That kind of sums up this ballclub right there,” Red Sox second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “He fought for every inch and was able to fire one into right field and get the whole thing started.”
Kinsler had kicked off the scoring for Boston with an RBI single in the second inning. In the games Boston had scored first this postseason, they were 8-0. When they trailed: 0-2. And after the Dodgers had strung together three consecutive hits of their own in the fourth inning to take a 2-1 lead off Red Sox starter David Price, Boston needed something, even if it was from one of the game’s worst hitters.
“It just takes a spark,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “That one little spark. And then it ignites with this group.”
In the Dodgers’ bullpen, 38-year-old Ryan Madson started to warm up. Madson prides himself on getting loose quickly, and that willingness to take the ball has allowed him to rack up more playoff appearances than any pitcher not named Mariano Rivera.
The Dodgers acquired Madson on Aug. 31, the deadline for a player to be in an organization and still participate in the postseason. He was supposed to be insurance. Then Madson started getting outs. The Dodgers grew to rely on him in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Even after Game 1, when Madson allowed both runners he inherited from Clayton Kershaw to score, their faith remained.
When Mookie Betts followed Vazquez’s single with one of his own, the possibility of Madson entering the game grew. The Red Sox’s No. 3 hitter, Steve Pearce, kills lefties. Their cleanup hitter, J.D. Martinez, had struck out against Madson the previous night, though that didn’t exactly embolden the pitcher. Asked about Martinez before Game 2, Madson said: “You know you’re in a pit with a rattlesnake, and one bad move, and you’ll get bit if you’re not paying attention.”
Before any further venom attack, the Red Sox would need to get not only Pearce on base but the hitter sandwiched between him and Betts.
About 12 minutes earlier, Andrew Benintendi had made what may go down as an iconic catch in left field – leaping in the air, almost balletic, legs splayed and graceful-like, to snag a Brian Dozier line drive. Now he was at the plate, almost certainly the last batter Ryu would face, as long as Madson was ready.
Before he stepped in, the Dodgers met on the mound. Partially to stall, partially to remind of Benintendi’s tendencies. Ryu missed badly on the first two pitches, a curveball and cutter. Benintendi then took a cutter for a strike and watched a curveball paint the inside corner. The count was even. Ryu was stepping off and on the mound, Benintendi doing the same. The fifth pitch was a ball. The count was full.
Benintendi wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Ryu throws five pitches – fastball, curveball, slider, cutter and changeup – and is among the game’s craftiest pitchers. He had punched out Benintendi in the first inning on a curveball. He’d happily snap off the same on a 3-2 count, as he had in the second inning to Rafael Devers, which, Benintendi admitted, “was in the back of my mind.”
Ryu went curve. Benintendi fouled it off. Ryu went curve again. Benintendi fouled it off again. There was another mound visit, and another yet, three alone for one hitter. This was a struggle – of skill, of physicality and especially of concentration. Neither wanted to bend. Benintendi could chase Ryu – and load the bases. Ryu could squelch this latest riposte by the Red Sox and give the Dodgers a chance to steal home-field advantage.
“You can lose it,” Hyers said. “You’re trying to maintain that focus. A lot of times it’s 15, 20 seconds where you’re trying to keep your focus. But with the mound visits, the step-offs, he was in the batter’s box for – it seemed like forever.”
It kept going, past 10:01, 10:02, 10:03, 10:04, 10:05, 10:06, into 10:07, half of the 15 minutes, when Ryu ditched the curve, went fastball, missed low and outside and found himself removed from the game, the bases full of Red Sox, his team’s fate in the hands of someone who the day before hadn’t exactly proven them a safe vessel.
Game 2 ended 74 minutes from this point. And when it did, most of the questions directed at Dodgers manager Dave Roberts concerned this exact moment. There were a few about how the Dodgers’ offense could go hitless in the first, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The answers: David Price for six innings, Joe Kelly for one, Nathan Eovaldi for one, Craig Kimbrel for one. The former turned in another worthy playoff performance while the latter three unleashed 100-mph petrol to stymie the Dodgers.
Before the Red Sox unleashed their Cerberus, Roberts went to his sigh of relief. He would later defend his choice to use Madson with the bases loaded vociferously. Surely he knew something that the public doesn’t – about how Madson’s stuff would play against Pearce and Martinez. Roberts played it off as a gut decision – “I just felt again Madson was the right guy to get us out of that,” he said – but these are the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they are not in the World Series for the second consecutive season on account of Roberts’ instinct alone.
He double-, triple-, quadruple-downed on using Madson over Pedro Báez, who looked phenomenal the day before, or Kenta Maeda, another strikeout arm in the Dodgers’ bullpen. A day earlier, as Roberts’ counterpart, Alex Cora, was asked about strategy, he said he did not mind others second-guessing him. And true though that may be, he also hasn’t made an error in the World Series as costly as going back to Madson in the fifth inning of Game 2.
From 10:08 to 10:11 p.m., Madson was busy throwing baseballs not over the plate. The first buzzed Pearce high and inside at 94 mph. The second did the same at 95. Danley gifted Madson a strike with his third pitch, though the combination of movement on his sinker and the clear lack of command made this a unique opportunity for the Red Sox to capitalize.
All Pearce wanted to do, he said, was “get the bat to J.D. Do whatever you’ve got to do to get him up to the plate.”
When Madson missed two more sinkers and walked in a run to tie the game at 2, Pearce had done his job. Ryan Madson’s pitches, he would later say, are “not going where I want it.” And that would provide the 14th and 15th minutes of this seminal quarter-hour for the 2018 Red Sox.
Chances are you’ve read or heard the numbers by now, but if not, get this: The Red Sox this postseason, with runners in scoring position and two outs, are hitting .425/.564/.756 with more walks (11) than strikeouts (seven). In vital situations, particularly when individual games in the postseason mean so much, they essentially turn into a lineup of Ted Williams, David Ortiz, Carl Yastrzemski, Manny Ramirez and Wade Boggs.
So, yeah. Of course J.D. Martinez waited for Madson to throw another strike and, when he finally did, on his seventh pitch, Martinez served it into right field. This was not another rope off the center-field wall. It was him showing the Red Sox try to practice what Cora preaches: “We live in an era that .210 with 30 home runs and 70 RBIs is acceptable, it’s a good season. And we don’t believe that. There’s certain situations that a strikeout is not just an out. And we put them in play, and they did again tonight, and that’s why we won the game.”
He’s right. Betts scored. Benintendi scored. The Red Sox led, 4-2. Madson would say that “I learned a little bit of humility,” to which the only appropriate response, really, is: The Red Sox do that to a player. They’ve done it all October. Aaron Judge blasted “New York, New York” from his boombox at Fenway and the Red Sox clowned the Yankees twice at home to finish them. Alex Bregman trolled the Red Sox on Instagram and exited via three straight Red Sox wins in Houston. As the World Series shifts to Dodger Stadium, it’s worth noting Boston still hasn’t lost a game away from Fenway this October.
Because as magnificent as these 15 minutes were – as much intrigue as they brought to single, single, walk, walk, single – they’re not more special in their own way than some sort of groundbreaking discovery. The Red Sox love talking about passing the baton, which is what teams say when they get hot in the playoffs, which is exactly what has happened here. The Red Sox are a great baseball team that has gotten remarkably hot in the most important moments.
There is skill in that, and there is luck in that, and this is neither the time nor the place to adjudicate the breakdown. It’s a moment instead to relish that the Red Sox could win more baseball games this year than all but one team in history. Or, even better, do what comes naturally when we’re talking in quarter-hour increments.
Let them enjoy their 15 minutes.
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