As Joe Maddon wore out the synthetic path between his dugout and the pitchers' mound, Red Sox fans started getting nervous that their team had missed its chance. Boston had wasted a bases-loaded, nobody out opportunity in the second inning -- when James Loney's length and reflexes turned Stephen Drew's might-be triple into a double play -- and then put five more runners aboard over the next three frames, but came away with nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, Maddon was making pitching changes with the urgency of a manager whose season hung in the balance, and knew he couldn't afford to fall behind, but as the game got later his maneuvering became more normal. After six innings -- thanks to a David DeJesus single that delivered Yunel Escobar -- the Rays had a 1-0 lead, and Maddon had Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Fernando Rodney lined up in his bullpen.
For all the zaniness that had played out to that point, that's exactly how Maddon would've wanted it had starter Jeremy Hellickson given him six scoreless innings. And with the Sox offense having started to sputter since its early attempt to peel out and pull away, there was surely some angst setting in around New England and the Nation, as the possibility of returning to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 5 against David Price began approaching reality.
If there was panic setting in elsewhere, though, it never reached Xander Bogaerts. When he picked up his bat and headed to the box to pinch hit for Stephen Drew with one out in the seventh he had as many big-league postseason plate appearances as you did sitting on your couch in Melrose, but there's a chance you were more nervous than he was, at least based on the result of his encounter with McGee.
The Rays' fireballing lefty got ahead in the count, going up a ball and two strikes by blowing a heart-of-the-plate heater by Bogaerts. Given that count, the circumstances of the game, and the fact that it was the first playoff at-bat for a just-turned-21-year-old, it would've been more than excusable if Bogaerts expanded his strike zone. Especially against a reliever living between 96 and 97 mph.
Yet Bogaerts didn't. Ball two was up and in. Ball three was inside. Then ball four was high -- but it had to be enticing out of McGee's hand. It was over the middle of the plate, and Pitch F/X says it was only about six inches above the top of the strike zone, which is a significant distance, but not too easily discernible when the pitcher is throwing that hard, the count is full, and the hitter is trying to start a rally in the late innings of a playoff game. Again, had Bogaerts chased, he would've been excused.
Instead, no excuses were necessary. He took the pitch, walked, then after Will Middlebrooks struck out, the rookie made a good read by scooting first to third on Jacoby Ellsbury's single to right-center. That proved pivotal when Peralta bounced his first offering to Shane Victorino, and Bogaerts was in position to tie the game by dashing home on the wild pitch.
Victorino subsequently scored Ellsbury with an infield single, Bogaerts worked another walk that led to an insurance run in the ninth, and Koji Uehara capped a fantastic night of Red Sox pitching by closing things with a perfect ninth. Game over. Series over.
No need to panic. No need to face Price again.
"Resiliency is a word that continues to come up," heroic reliever Craig Breslow said after the game. "We came out tonight, we grinded through at‑bats, we came back from a one‑run deficit -- and that's been the trend all season. On any given night it could be a different guy who contributes, and tonight I would say it was 25 guys who contributed."
Bogaerts, in fact, was probably the 24th man on Boston's 25-man roster for the ALDS, if that determination is made based on the way John Farrell used his players. Yet there he was -- prepared, poised, and precocious enough to make a decisive contribution when his (telling) No. 72 was called, and help ensure that the Sox simultaneously reached the 100-win plateau and the American League Championship Series.
Who they'll face there is still to be determined, with Oakland and Detroit slated to settle that matter Thursday night. But regardless of whether it's the A's or the Tigers in Fenway's third-base dugout come Saturday, there should be no question who the favorite should be.
With every division series having so far played four games, the team that finished the regular season with the most wins in baseball is tied with the Dodgers for the most runs scored (26), and also has the best ERA (3.03) of any team other than the one-and-done Indians. Defensively, they're also one of two teams that hasn't made an error in these playoffs.
Put it all together and you'd be hard-pressed to find a weakness. Or a weak link.
Or a reason to worry at all.
Here's a look at each of the parts that summed to the whole in a 3-1 ALDS win over Tampa:
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||9-for-18 (.500), 1.137 OPS, 7 R, 2 RBI, 2 2B, BB, 4 SB: Scott Boras will make sure Ellsburyís dominant series is on the foremind of those pursuing Ellsbury in free agency, though this was more than a contract push. This was further evidence that heís one of the best postseason players in recent Red Sox history. Even with his 0-for-14 against Tampa in the 2008 ALCS, heís hitting .310 with 19 runs and 27 hits in 26 career playoff games. (Heís a .370 hitter, with a .933, when that one series is removed.) In the middle of so much, he was, unofficially, the ALDS MVP.|
|Shane Victorino,RF||6-for-14 (.429), .984 OPS, 2 R, 3 RBI, SB: Victorino didnít draw a walk in the series, but his .429 average spiked to a .556 on-base percentage because of the four times he was hit by a pitch. He invites those by standing on top of the plate, and refusing to bail -- but clearly thatís not the only reason he positions his body there. He batted better than .300 from the right side of the plate this season.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||4-for-17 (.235), .505 OPS, 2 R, 5 RBI, 2B: Pedroia scuffled for most of the series -- yet he found a way not to waste the opportunities that Ellsbury and Victorino created by getting on ahead of him. His five RBI were tied for the most of anyone in the playoffs as of Wednesday, and whatís most remarkable is that only one of them came via a hit. If heís better in the ALCS, so should be the Soxí attack.|
|David Ortiz, DH||5-for-13 (.385), 1.479 OPS, 4 R, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 2B, 2 HR: The Rays werenít eager to pitch to Ortiz, who walked five times in 18 plate appearances. Thatís 27.8 percent of his trips, after his walk rate for the regular season was 12.7 percent -- though Tampa canít be blamed for its decision, given how locked in Ortiz looks to be at the moment. His twin Game 2 homers were just two of the balls he squared up over the series.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||2-for-13 (.154), .584 OPS, R, RBI, 4 BB, 2B: The Sox were hoping Napoliís sizzling September would last into October, but he struggled at the plate (particularly after Game 1), and it wasnít his best work in the field either (particularly in Game 3). He did draw four walks, though if Ortiz is going to be the threat he should be, Napoli has to afford him some level of protection.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-5 (.200), .629 OPS, 2 BB: As usual, Nava made even a 1-for-5 series look impressive and professional. Over the course of his seven plate appearances he saw a total of 49 pitches, and the only trip in which he didnít see at least five offerings was when he swung on the second pitch and rifled a single to right against Hellickson in Game 4.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||2-for-9 (.222), .697 OPS, 3 R, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 2B: He didnít do much after his big double in Game 1, though that and his presence from the right side was enough to help the Sox win. Opportunities to start might be scarce for him in the second round, with both sides featuring four right-handed starters, so his renowned readiness will be key when he is called upon.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||3-for-10 (.300), .764 OPS, R, 3 RBI, BB, 2B: The good news is that Saltalamacchia had a 1.000 average on balls in play. The bad news is that he struck out seven times in 11 plate appearances. The switch-hitter wonít be disappointed to see right-handed pitching in the ALCS, given his preference for batting from the right side.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-15 (.133), .400 OPS, R, 2 RBI, 3B: He had a triple off Price, and a single against Matt Moore, but Maddon matched things up so that Drew got only three at-bats against righties in the entire series before getting pulled for Bogaerts in Game 4. Expect him to be a bigger factor against the Aís or Tigers.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||3-for-13 (.231), .683 OPS, R, RBI, 2B, 3 BB: He didnít come away with a lot to show for it, but Middlebrooks put on a number of good, competitive at-bats in the series -- best evidenced by his working three walks. Thatís as many as he had in all of September.|
|David Ross, C||1-for-5 (.200), .600 OPS, R, 2B: Any offense is a bonus, so his clean-out double against Price was a nice add-on in Game 2. The bigger value, though, came in his ability to help coax John Lackey through some command issues early in that same contest, and generally in the teamís ability to trust him behind the plate, which enabled them to hit for Saltalamacchia in Game 4.|
|Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B||0-for-0, 3 R, 2 BB: What a line that is. The right-handed nature of the Aís and Tigers makes it almost certain that Drew will remain the shortstop choice moving forward, but hereís something to keep in mind if Drewís struggles continue: Jacoby Ellsbury had only one plate appearance in the 2007 ALDS. By the end of the ALCS, center field was is. And Coco Crisp was a pretty good defender, too.|
|Mike Carp, PH||0-for-1 (.000): He had a big chance in Game 3, when he was at the plate with the go-ahead run at third base in the ninth, and got punched out on a call he didnít much appreciate. He should be in line for more opportunities in the next series, although his numbers against the Aís and Tigers arenít too good over this year, or in his career.|
|Quintin Berry, PR||0-for-0, SB: The resident runner did his job -- at least according to Mike Winters, the second base umpire who ruled him safe on his steal attempt in Game 3 although Berry appeared to be out. The baseball gods saw to it that justice was served, however, and he was stranded.|
|Jon Lester, SP||7.2 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K: He set the tone perfectly, allowing only four baserunners in his first seven innings of work, and picking up what seemed at the time like a must-win with Price looming in Game 2. He has earned the opportunity to open the next series, too.|
|John Lackey, SP||5.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 6 K: His teammates gave him a lead to work with, and though he didnít go as deep in the game as he wouldíve liked, he responded by keeping that lead and giving his team a chance to win. He belongs in the ALCS rotation, and pitching him in Game 2 means he can make both his starts at Fenway. That makes sense, given his splits. Then again, so might pitching Jake Peavy in Games 2 and 6, and letting Lackey have Game 4.|
|Clay Buchholz, SP||6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 K: Heís still not as sharp as he was early in the year. After giving up two homers in his first 100 innings, heís given up three in his last two starts, accounting for all six of the runs scored against him -- but those bombs havenít come off the bats of slouches. Theyíve been hit by Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Evan Longoria, all of whom finished this season in the ALís top 10. That says Buchholz is still good enough to take care of business. He just needs to be more careful against the most dangerous guys among the opposition.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||5.2 IP, 5 H, ER, 3 K: He didnít get the win, and he left with his team trailing. But consider the trade justified.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||IP, H, 2 K: His lone inning was in mop-up duty at the end of a 12-2 rout. But the fact he was warming in Game 3 suggests that if the matchup is right, Dempster is absolutely in the mix to pitch in the eighth inning of a close game.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||0.2 IP, H: He allowed an inherited run to score after taking over for Franklin Morales with two on in the eighth inning of Game 3, and subsequently allowing Escobarís infield single and Delmon Youngís run-scoring groundout. But it was a positive performance. Had the communication been better up the middle, Escobarís contact couldíve been a double play. And Workman threw strikes when he had to do so.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||3.2 IP, 2 H, BB, 4 K: Saltalamacchia declared the lefty the series MVP, and while weíd give that title to Ellsbury, Breslow is certainly a good choice. He ate up the heart of the Raysí order by striking out four in a row during Game 4, when he was throwing as hard as ever and still in total command. He has followed up a great regular season with a most-encouraging start to the playoffs.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||2.1 IP, H, 2 K: He worked in all four games, but was asked to get just seven outs. That suggests that after sometimes pitching multiple innings over the course of the year, Tazawa is now seen as more of a short-term matchup type. And if thatís responsible for his impressive focus and uptick in velocity, then it appears he might again be the weapon he was last September.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||0.1 IP, H, ER, BB: The upside is intriguing, but his lone appearance was probably the more typical Morales performance. He retired just one of the three men he faced, walking one and allowing a hit (albeit on a botched bunt). Itíll be curious to see if the Sox give Matt Thornton a shot at being the third lefty in the Championship Series.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||3 IP, H, ER, 4 K: After Jose Lobatonís walkoff homer in Game 3, there was some focus put on Ueharaís spotty postseason track record. Well, he faced nine hitters in the series. Four struck out. Lobaton was the only one who reached base. It says here that reports of his demise were slightly exaggerated.|
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