The Red Sox won the pennant! How great do those words sound? Remember when the Red Sox were considered little more than a speedbump in the way of the Yankees and then the Astros? When the postseason started, the national media, a majority of the Boston media, and even a large percentage of Red Sox Nation thought the team had no chance against the fearsome Yankees. (I'll admit that after game two of the Yankees series, I thought the Sox were finished. It seems foolish now to look back at a series tied 1-1 and think that, but I certainly wasn't the only one. I'll own it.). After winning two games at Yankee Stadium to close out the ALDS, everyone in national sports media picked Houston to steamroll the Sox in the ALCS. I thought the Sox would win the series but that it would go six or seven games. After dropping the opener at home I ripped the Sox for looking overwhelmed and for whining about the umpiring all night. When they bounced back to win game two and tie the series, I thought it was going to be a dogfight to the end. I stated repeatedly on here and on Twitter that my hope was for them to win two of the next three in Houston in order to come back to Boston up 3-2. The Sox responded by winning games three and four to go up 3-1. I then speculated that game five was one Alex Cora was willing to lose if things didn't shake out the way he wanted. This was for a few reasons: David Price was pitching on three days rest (and we're all well aware of his postseason struggles), the Astros had Justin Verlander starting, and the Sox had the buffer of two more games at home to close it out. I assumed Cora would leave Price in the game for five or six innings regardless of how well he pitched in order to eat up some innings and give the already taxed bullpen some rest. As I settled in for the first pitch I was curious to see which, if any, of my predictions would hold true.
For the fourth consecutive game the Sox struck first. In the third inning it appeared that Verlander had rung up JD Martinez on an 0-2 pitch, but the home plate umpire disagreed and called it a ball. I thought it should have been strike three and acknowledged that the Sox got a break there. The very next pitch was a hanging curveball that JD sat on and crushed to left field for a solo home run and a 1-0 lead. With the way both Verlander and Price were pitching, this was a classic pitcher's duel for the first five innings. All night, the Sox had gotten to Verlander and put men on base, but they hadn't been able to turn those into runs. I kept saying to my wife and kids "if they can keep putting pressure on him [Verlander], eventually they'll break through." It eventually happened in the sixth inning. Mitch Moreland led off the inning with a double that scraped the wall in left field...this time Tony Kemp couldn't make the catch even though it looked like he just might. After Ian Kinsler singled to right field to put runners on the corners with no outs, Rafael Devers hit a towering ball off the first pitch he saw to the opposite field for a three run homer and a 4-0 Red Sox lead. For some strange reason, that felt like it would be more than enough of a lead and I was relaxed and calm for the rest of the game. In the bottom of the sixth Mookie Betts made a great leaping grab of an Alex Bregman drive that was almost identical to the fan interference incident in game four, but there was no dispute on this one. Marwin Gonzalez helped Houston avoid the shut out when he hit an opposite field home run off of Matt Barnes to almost the same spot as Devers, but that was all Houston got as they went down in both the game and the series to the final of 4-1. The bullpen trio of Barnes, Nathan Eovaldi, and Craig Kimbrel took care of the final three innings of the game and apart from the homer Barnes surrendered, they kept Houston at bay and slammed the door. Andrew Benintendi made the final out with a running catch at the warning track on a Kemp fly ball and the series was over. For the second time in just over a week the Red Sox celebrated on their opponent's field and in their clubhouse.
So what does all of this tell you? First and foremost, it should tell you that I'm not particularly good at making predictions! Alex Cora and the 2018 Red Sox are not only a terrifically talented baseball team, but they're mentally tough as nails. They're also now the undisputed best team in baseball after winning three in a row on the road in Houston. Before I discuss anything else, I have two words for you: David Price. He. Was. Amazing in this game. He tossed six superb innings, only allowing three hits and striking out nine batters without a single walk. He did it all on ninety-three pitches and seemed in complete control of his repertoire from the very start. He only had one three ball count and kept the Astros hitters off balance and guessing all night. It was his first career postseason win and couldn't have come at a better time as he outdueled Verlander and held the potent Astros lineup scoreless. He's finally thrown the postseason monkey off of his back and proved me and everyone else wrong who said he'd never be able to do it. I'm really happy for him because I've always cheered for him since I knew that if he did well, the Red Sox would do well. I've never understood the segment of Red Sox fans who cheered against the guy and wanted to run him out of town...hopefully he's quieted them for good with this performance. Also encouraging was Kimbrel finally pitching a clean ninth inning. Other than a walk, he struck two out and got Kemp to fly out to end the game. Of further note, the Sox pitching held Bregman 0-9 over the final two games of the series; he was the one Astro that Cora wasn't going to let beat them and after pitching around him for the first three games they attacked him and shut him down completely. (It was also nice to shove it in his face after his attempt to troll the Sox before game three severely backfired). Another significant point I want to make about this win which is a testament to the Red Sox depth is that the majority of the offensive damage came from the bottom half of the order. Apart from JD's solo shot on a night where he went 2-4, it was Moreland, Kinsler, Devers, and Christian Vazquez who put the pressure on Verlander and ultimately scored the winning runs. On a night where they were facing one of the best pitchers of his generation in an elimination game, it wasn't Mookie or Benintendi or Xander Bogaerts who did any damage and yet the game always felt completely in Boston's control. The win earned the team the AL pennant and sent them to the World Series to await the winner of the NLCS...not a bad way for Cora to spend his 43rd birthday. Jackie Bradley won the ALCS MVP award for his monstrous hitting in games two, three, and four and his superb defense throughout the series. Jackie is a player I've always been a big fan of going back to his rookie season in 2013 so to see him win that award was really nice.
Wrapping up the series in five games showed that the Sox are the ultimate road dogs this postseason: they're 5-0 away from Fenway Park this October and have outscored their opponents 40-13 in the visitor's ballparks. This a relentless offensive lineup that can beat you in so many different ways while the pitching (both starting and relief) has been, on the whole, nothing short of spectacular. The win now gives the Red Sox four full days to rest, study film, prepare, and line up their rotation for the World Series. (It also gives Chris Sale extra time to fully regain his strength from the stomach virus that sidelined him). It will be interesting to see who they end up playing with the NLCS currently heading to game six on Friday with the Dodgers leading the Brewers 3-2. The baseball fan in me wants to see a Red Sox vs. Dodgers World Series because it would pit two marquee original franchises against each other and evokes shades of another legendary Boston vs. Los Angeles rivalry, that between the Celtics and Lakers. However, I can't stand the current Dodgers team (nor can I ever root for any team from LA), so you can see how confusing my rooting interests are in that series! Regardless of who Boston plays, the World Series will be a challenge for this team, but after seeing them overcome obstacles and doubters all season, who would bet against them now?