One more Red Sox October

The Boston Red Sox won the World Series on Sunday, just as they did in 2013 and 2007 and 2004, four times now in the last 14 years, more than any other team in MLB this century. For a franchise that was once supposed to be cursed, they seem pretty blessed these days.

Apparently the Red Sox, who won five World Series from 1903-1918, play their best at the beginning of any century.

Sunday’s celebration was similar to what we see every October — champagne aimed and sprayed in the locker room as if it were a big water fight, Queen’s We Are the Champions blared, as traditional as Christmas music in December, and a redemptive story line — the Sox offering David Price’s — held up as proof of superior moral fiber.  And, thanks to Alex Rodriguez on the post-game show, the D word (dynasty) suggested.

(The dynasty won’t happen any more for the Red Sox than it did for the Cubs after 2016 or the Astros after 2017. Ask their fans how those dynasties are going. There’s too many good teams, too many variables, too many possibilities to think the next season will play out like this one.)

The Red Sox measure themselves by how they compare to the Yankees, and these days, they’re getting good marks. The Red Sox have won four World Series this century to the Yankees’ two, and it’s 4-1 if you’re keeping score since 2004. Since the Red Sox trailed the 2004 ALCS 3-0, they’re 7-1 vs. the Yankees in the postseason, and the Red Sox have won three straight AL East titles.

They beat the Yankees by eight games to win the AL East and 3-1 in the ALDS this year, beat them by two games last year and nine the year before.

We’re in that most unusual of eras — anything the Yankees can do, the Red Sox can do better, and that hasn’t happened for 100 years or more.

This includes hiring a manager which both teams did last offseason (the Yankees didn’t need one, but that’s another issue), and both hired theirs by way of ESPN.

The Red Sox, with Alex Cora, won there, too (they also won at the trade deadline when they added Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, and the Yankees added J.A. Happ and Zack Britton. For impact on the postseason, that was as lopsided as the Sox’s 16-1 Game 3 ALDS win, which was pitched by none other than Eovaldi).

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was traditional in his handling of pitchers in the ALDS, and in his sequence of relievers (Lance Lynn before Chad Green in Game 3). In a best-of-five series, with the Yankees’ deep bullpen and weak starters, more panic was called for.

Cora managed nearly every game of the postseason as if it were a Game 7, not with panic but urgency and immediacy. Winning today made figuring out tomorrow easier.

In eight of his team’s 14 postseason games, Cora used a starter out of the bullpen, and only in Eovaldi’s six-inning World Series Game 3 stint did they give up any runs.  In the 13.2 postseason innings pitched in relief by Red Sox starters (by definition, including Eovaldi but not Eduardo Rodriguez), the only earned run allowed was Max Muncy’s game-winning homer in the 18th.

Cora used his bullpen all postseason as if it were a free for all, assigned roles be damned. Everyone warmed up, and anyone could come out when the door opened. (He also made lineups out like that, too, keeping lefty Rafael Devers in vs. Clayton Kershaw twice when third baseman Eduardo Nunez was available.)

Compare that to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who stuck to situational changes. He was criticized for taking Rich Hill out of Game 4 after 91 pitches, even by the president, who played a little ball when he was younger, and for leaving Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 for 92 pitches and tack-on homers by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez.

(President Trump might have been right when he said Roberts should have left Hill in; with lefty Brock Holt up, I’d have given him another batter. But he was wrong to suggest Ryan Madson, who relieved Scott Alexander who relieved Hill, was nervous. The latter’s Game 4 appearance was the 57th in his career in the postseason, and he’s won World Series titles with the 2008 Phillies and 2015 Royals. Nerves weren’t the problem. Stuff was.)

Dodgers bullpen issues have been as much a part of the postseason as four-hour games, and 2018 was no different. The Dodgers’ bullpen had a 5.48 ERA, and every reliever they used — eight in all — gave up runs. Four of them threw five of the eight home runs the Red Sox hit (Clayton Kershaw threw the other three in Game 5).

You can criticize Roberts (and methinks he should have left Pedro Baez in Game 1, Hill for another batter in Game 4 and taken Kershaw out earlier in Game 5), but when closer Kenley Jansen gives up game-tying homers in consecutive games and a bullpen can’t get eight outs to hold a 4-0 lead, it’s more the bullpen’s fault than the manager’s.

The last six Dodgers struck out in Game 5, including Manny Machado, who slipped to one knee waving at a Chris Sale slider. The Dodgers literally went down swinging, and it seems a fitting end to 2018.

Other things to note about this year’s World Series:

  • Steve Pearce was MVP, and three homers, a double and eight RBIs in the last 11 innings of the Series is no small feat. But until the eighth inning of Game 4, Pearce was 0-for-6 in the Series. David Price won Game 2, relieved in Game 3 and won Game 5 on three days rest — one if you count his bullpen cameo in Game 3. In a series with Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, and in a time when going three times through the order is as dangerous as foregoing your flu shot, Price was the only starter to go six innings twice. There were five starts of six innings or more in this Series and Price had two of them.
  • The World Series MVP was commonly referred to as a journeyman, and if you count the number of teams he’s played for — 7 in 12 seasons — perhaps he is. But Pearce has played for that many teams because he can hit. He has a lifetime .783 OPS, though he has never been given more than the 383 plate appearances the Orioles did in 2014, when he hit 21 homers, batted .293 and had a .930 OPS. Pearce has a lifetime .500 slugging percentage vs. lefties and has normally been viewed as a right-handed platoon piece. But three of his four big hits in the last 11 innings of the Series were off righties. Maybe it’s not so much that Pearce is a journeyman, but that he’s been miscast as one. Labels are hard to shed.
  • Price, who went to Vanderbilt, said he gave up his first college homer to Pearce, who went to SEC foe South Carolina. Might be time to let it go.
  • Small sample sizes are the bane of sabermetrics, and some of David Price’s pre-2018 postseason failures can be attributed to them. Yes, Price’s team had lost his nine previous postseason starts, and yes, Price had a 5.03 ERA in 73.1 postseason innings entering 2018. His postseason record wasn’t good. But he also won a game and saved Game 7 in relief for the Rays in the 2008 ALCS; he had four career quality postseason starts, including a 2-1 loss for the Tigers to Bud Norris and the Orioles in the 2014 ALDS; he retired 18 Royals in a row for the Blue Jays in the 2015 ALCS before a five-run rally that started with a bloop single so unlikely batter Ben Zobrist slammed his bat down in frustration; he threw 6.2 scoreless innings in relief in last year’s ALDS vs. the world champions Astros, including four in the Red Sox’s only win. Price wasn’t all bad in October before 2018.
  • Good memory for Mets fans, who need one, department: The last Series MVP to be traded in midseason was the Mets’ Donn Clendenon in 1969, who homered three times in 16 plate appearances vs. the Orioles. Like Pearce, Clendenon was a right-handed platoon first baseman. Unlike Pearce, he didn’t play at all in the LCS because the Mets faced three right-handers in the Braves’ Phil Niekro, Pat Jarvis and Milt Pappas. Clendenon went nine days between at-bats from the end of the regular season on Oct. 2 and the Series opener on Oct. 11.
  • Happiest Red Sox after Game 5 has to be Ian Kinsler, whose error, after he was thrown out at home to conclude a Lonnie Smith-like trip around the bases, cost them Game 3. For the rest of Game 3 after Kinsler’s error and the first seven innings of Game 4, it seemed the curse was back. How differently would we think of Bill Buckner today if the Red Sox had won that Game 7?
  • Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is still more popular in Boston. He was cheered by Red Sox fans when the 2004 Red Sox threw out the ball before Game 2, and booed by Dodgers fans, in need of a scapegoat, before Game 5.
  • Bash Roberts, and Dodgers fans and Red Sox-haters did, but the single most egregious handling of pitching was Cora’s in Game 4 when he allowed Eduardo Rodriguez to face Yasiel Puig. Predictably, Puig hit Rodriguez’s 93rd and final pitch for a three-run home run, which sullied an otherwise fine performance by a pitcher who had relieved the night before. Rodriguez had appeared six times previously in this postseason, all in relief, and thrown 78 pitches combined in them He hadn’t started in five weeks since Sept. 20, when he threw 100 pitches to get 11 outs vs. the Yankees. Since injuring his ankle in July, Rodriguez topped 90 pitches just that once. “I was actually kicking myself for a few innings before the comeback,” Cora said, and he should have been.
  • How Cora handled Joe Kelly, though, was brilliant. Kelly wasn’t sure to make the postseason roster, and was probably helped by Steven Wright’s injury. He started the division season pitching mopup; he finished the World Series as the prime setup man, striking out the side in the eighth inning of Game 5. Kelly had an 8.31 ERA and walked five batters in 8.2 innings in the final month of the regular season; he threw six of the most important scoreless innings of the World Series, walking none and fanning 10. Kelly was indicative of Cora’s philosophy: your role was determined by your performance.
  • Tweet of the Series, to the Texas Rangers, who know what it’s like to lose back-to-back Series: “Hey Dodgers, the support group for back-to-back World Series losers meets on Tuesday.” The Rangers did it in 2010-11.
  •  Apparently, cutting DH Hanley Ramirez didn’t hurt. It was a surprise when the Sox cut Ramirez, 0-for-his-last-21, in late May. They did it to keep catcher/utilityman Blake Swihart, who only batted .229 with a .613 OPS this year and batted just three times in the playoffs. But Swihart’s value was never more apparent. Because the Sox carried three catchers, they could bat for starter Christian Vazquez or Sandy Leon (or both, as they did in Game 4 of the Series) and whenever they wanted (as early as the fifth inning in Game 1 of the ALCS). They still had Swihart on the bench in case of injury. Cora batted for his catcher eight times in the postseason, getting two hits (including Rafael Devers’ go-ahead single in Game 4 of the Series), a walk and a run-scoring hit by pitch (in the five-run eighth in Game 3 of the ALCS). There was nothing Ramirez could have provided that was as important as Swihart’s flexibility.
  • Chris Sale’s rant in Game 4 — if you saw someone coming down a busy street looking like Sale did in the dugout, you’d cross to the other side — got a lot of attention, just as David Ortiz did after urging teammates on in 2013. But it’s also doubtful it had much to do with the Red Sox’s rally. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, and it’s not as if the Red Sox weren’t trying. As Sale himself said, “I would have looked pretty foolish if Moreland hadn’t homered.”
  • One of the most important at-bats of the Red Sox postseason might have come in the very first game. The Red Sox had lost two runs of a 5-0 lead in the sixth inning, they were on their third pitcher of the inning, the Yankees had the bases loaded with two outs and a 3-2 count. Gleyber Torres chased a curve ball and struck out against Brandon Workman, the Yankees loaded the bases with none out an inning later and got just one run. How much different the whole playoffs might have been with a hit there. As for Workman, he didn’t even make the Sox’s World Series roster.
  • Is this the greatest Boston baseball team of all-time? Hard to tell since we don’t have many first-hand accounts of the 1903 Boston Americans or 1912 or 1915-16 Red Sox. Only the 1912 (.691) and 1915 Red Sox (.669) had better percentages than this year’s .667. Cy Young won 28 games and pitched 341.2 innings for the 1903 Americans, third baseman/manager Jimmy Collins (296/329/448) was a Hall of Famer and Buck Freeman led the AL with 13 homers and 104 RBIs (his 20 triples were third).  The 1912 Sox won 105 games but struggled to win four in the Series against the New York Giants. It took eight games (one tie), 10 innings and a two-run rally keyed by a Fred Snodgrass error to beat a 103-win New York Giants team, 3-2. Snodgrass’ dropped fly ball allowed Tris Speaker to tie the game with a hit before a sacrifice fly beat Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson. Smokey Joe Wood won Games 1, 4 and 8, the last in relief a day after being knocked out in Game 7 by a six-run first inning. Mathewson deserved better — he lost Game 4, 2-1, Game 8 and settled for a 6-6 tie in Game 2 when the Giants made five errors behind him and allowed six unearned runs. If not for that, maybe the Giants win the Series in 6. The 1915 Red Sox won four straight one-run games after losing the Series opener to the Phillies, who took 35 years to get back to the Series. The 1915 Red Sox hit 14 homers as a team, and four of those were by rookie Babe Ruth in 103 plate appearances. But five Red Sox regulars walked more than they fanned (Hall of Famer Tris Speaker walked 81 times and struck out just 14), and though they had no 20-game winners, they had five pitchers, including Ruth, win 15 or more with ERAs of 2.44 or better. The 2018 Red Sox won 108 games, 119 if you include the postseason, and beat two 100-win teams to get to the World Series, which had been done only by the ’99 Mets (they beat the 100-win Diamondbacks and 103-win Braves) and ’98 Padres (they beat the 102-win Astros and 106-win Braves). Their place in Red Sox history is safe.
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