Scripts be damned: Red Sox return to Promised Land

Don’t even think about whether or not anyone could have written this script. It would have been flipped and fried in an instant. Not one member of the world champion Red Sox cares about scripts, anyway. To them, it’s more like a night at the Improv. Do what needs to be done in the moment. Never mind the Plan, this is now, that’ll be then, and when it is we’ll deal with it.

Even if now is the top of the first in Game 5, and World Series MVP Steve Pearce hitting the first pitch he sees from Clayton Kershaw on the night for a home run with Andrew Benintendi on board with a one-out hit. Script, schmipt — the Red Sox can score with one out when necessary, too.

Even if now is the bottom of the first, when World Series hero past David Freese hit David Price’s first pitch of his evening over the right field fence, and Price needed to finish what he started, a postseason in which he stood a postseason past that looked even worse than Kershaw’s on its head and drove it through the ground.

Even if now is the Promised Land to which the Red Sox returned with a bullpen that proved to be more than its reputation on its own but found no few starting pitchers aiding and abetting that effort above and beyond the call of, sometimes, sanity.

Price didn’t just bury his postseason past. He became the first postseason pitcher ever to win back-to-back series-clinching games against Cy Young Award winners. He did it by figuring out he’d been tipping his changeup, got the flaw fixed, and went to it to throttle the Astros at the end of the American League Championship Series and keep the Dodgers to three hits to nail their Series coffin tight shut. And he performed both of those acts of witchcraft on just three day's rest.

When Chris Sale — originally slated to start Game 6 in Fenway Park if the Series got back there — struck out the side in the ninth, Price shot out of the dugout as the celebration began. Somehow, someone asked him how it felt that his teammates loved and respected him. The tall lefthander pulled his hoodie up to his face and wept for beyond-words joy.

The Red Sox had a fourth World Series ring in 15 years, nailing the clinchers on the road for three out of the four. The Dodgers couldn’t quite accept what would have been heavenly for just about any other franchises, back-to-back pennants. “Hey @Dodgers, the support group for back-to-back #WorldSeries losers meets Tuesdays,” the Texas Rangers tweeted. Even if they reminded themselves of their own such calamity, that wasn’t especially nice.

The Series began with a better than excellent chance of going seven games. The Dodgers dispatched the Braves with only one loss in the division series before out-wrestling the Brewers and their superb bullpen in a seven-game National League Championship Series thriller. The Red Sox split games with the Yankees before shoving them out of the division series, then recovered from an opening loss to run away from the defending world champion Astros in a five-game American League Championship Series.

Coming into the World Series, there were those who thought the Dodgers could exploit the one other known Red Sox weakness, lefthanded pitching with big curve balls to offer frequently enough, especially with Kershaw having rediscovered his curve, even while Price entered the Series with his freshly re-discovered changeup. The Dodgers also figured to out-slug the Red Sox, while the Red Sox hoped to wear the Dodgers down with balls in play.

But it turned out that the Red Sox could slug as well as anyone when they needed to. They used the home run as well as Price’s stout pitching to win Game 5; they shook off the long and winding Game 3 marathon — which the Dodgers won with Max Muncy’s eighteenth-inning leadoff home run — and they started their late Game 4 comeback when pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland smashed a three-run homer in the seventh.

It wasn’t supposed to end in five games. But the Dodgers lost too many plots in the series. A team tht proved its own bullpen just a little better than the Brewers’ in the NLCS saw that same bullpen get spanked on the biggest stage; no proper reliever shows a series ERA lower than the 3.00 shared by Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias.

Kershaw may have shaken off Pearce’s first-inning bomb for the four shutout innings to follow, but he didn’t exactly look like his NLCS self and surrendered two more homers before his night was done. Rich Hill’s lone start, in Game 4, ended controversially after he asked manager Dave Roberts to watch him in the seventh and Roberts saw his man gassing. Walker Buehler’s magnificent Game Three start became buried in the marathon into which that game turned so surrealistically

Except for Freese, an August pickup from the Pirates, and Justin Turner, their regular third baseman for three years running, no Dodger other than Puig batted close to .250  for the Series.

“It might not be a personnel thing,” Kershaw lamented when the Series ended, well aware that the Dodgers may be in for a few changes now, including whether he himself decides to exercise his too-often-discussed opt-out clause, “it might just be a ‘play better’ thing.”

Which is exactly what it was for the Red Sox.

Pearce, the player all other American League East teams couldn’t decide upon, carried a 1.250 OPS into Game 5 thanks to a Game 4-tying solo blast in the eighth and a three-run double in the ninth. Until then his biggest contributions at the plate were bases on balls.

But not even 12 hours after he shot a Kenley Jansen service into the glove of a fan behind the fence, Pearce sent Kershaw’s introduction to him on the night three rows into the left field bleachers. And when he unloaded on Pedro Baez solo in the top of the eighth, it meant Pearce spent the final 11 innings of this series hitting one game-tying homer, a three-run double, a two-run bomb, and the homer providing the last Red Sox insurance run of the season.

Price could almost chuckle away Freese’s opening rip. The only serious trouble he faced all night was in the third with one out, when Freese sent one to the back of right field that J.D. Martinez lost entirely in Dodger Stadium’s odd-and-sod dusk visibility, letting it bound off the fence and Freese make his way to third.

Inexplicably, however, the Dodgers didn’t even think of sending Freese off and running on contact with Justin Turner at the plate. He swung on the first pitch and whacked a grounder that looked like it might have allowed a run, but Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts looked to third and threw on to first and may have been as surprised as anyone that Freese didn’t even feint toward the plate.

That wasn’t Roberts’ most egregious mistake of the night. The Dodgers manager took an unfair roasting for hooking Hill in Game 4, but Kershaw began to look as though his own tank was just about empty when he opened the sixth when Price was batting for himself and actually made contact, grounding out to shortstop.

When an American League lifer who probably can’t remember the last time he had to swing a bat in a game makes even a mere ground out, it’s usually a warning sign.

But nobody got up to throw in the Dodger bullpen. On a night both teams loudly and strongly proclaimed themselves going all-in — the Red Sox to win the series, the Dodgers to stay alive long enough to send it back even to frigid Boston — Roberts probably should have had bullpen men getting ready even slightly before the sixth.

Mookie Betts, the likely American League Most Valuable Player who up to that point was one of the Red Sox’s less involved stars at the plate, was only too happy to nail the point, sending a Kershaw slider without quite enough dive over the left field fence. With yet another script-flipping one out.

And if you want to talk about continuing to flip the script, the Red Sox scored thrice from the sixth to the eighth, one run per inning, with long balls. With Pedro Baez in relief maybe two innings later than he should have been to keep the game tight, Pearce finished signing off on his World Series MVP credentials when he hit a dangling change over the left field fence. This time, Pearce seemed to remember at least part of the script — it came with two outs.

In between Betts and Pearce Part 2, Roberts left Kershaw in for the seventh as well, at a time when he might have been served better to bring in either Baez or Julio Urias. And Kershaw and the Dodgers paid for it right out of the seventh inning chute when Martinez, whose balky ankle probably impeded him more than either he or the Red Sox would admit publicly, caught hold of a 1-1 fastball just under the pipe and sent it over the center field fence.

Roberts is considered by and large an intelligent skipper, but in this series he seemed to fall prey once too often to that which has brought down others in the recent past: sticking with the plan and falling just long enough out of the moment. He shouldn’t be blamed too heavily for it. Roberts could have gone full-on freewheeling, improvising in the moment like a classic Miles Davis group, and these Red Sox probably would have cut his cables.

It was as if Red Sox manager Alex Cora knew almost exactly what Roberts would or wouldn’t do, and what the Dodgers could or couldn’t do at certain moments, and had an answer for every last one of them. And if Roberts merely proclaimed going all-in but didn’t quite go as all-in as he could or should have when it mattered the most, Cora meant business.

Let Price get to the eighth inning on a night he was pitching like a master? Why not. But get him the hell out of there at the first sign of trouble, like a six-pitch walk to Chris Taylor leading off the eighth in which the four balls sandwiched two strikes and were traveling in a loop around and beyond the strike zone. Get Joe Kelly in there post haste and let Kelly strike out the side from there, including two pinch hitters, even if one, Joc Pederson, gave him a battle of it.

And even if you’ve had Matt Barnes, Nathan Eovaldi — whose bravura six-inning Game 3 turn probably saved the Red Sox bullpen for the rest of the set — and Sale playing musical relievers warming up almost round-robin in the bullpen, you have Sale, that great and loud Game 4 motivator, as fresh as the night is long. You sent him out for the media meet before Game 4, as one does with the choice for the following game, then decided you had a better shot with Price in Dodger Stadium and should save Sale for Game 6.

But you have the chance to nail the Series now, and Cardiac Craig Kimbrel isn’t even a topic. This is no time to get the heart carts deployed and ready. So Cora reached for Sale. And Sale struck out the side — including, for the final out of game, set, series, and season, Manny Machaco. Johnny Hustle himself, whose occasional hits and RBIs (he had four hits and three RBIs in the series but nothing for extra bases) were overshadowed too often by his contradictory recklessness and laziness on the bases.

Machado, the non-waiver trade deadline acquisition from the reeling-to-rebuilding Orioles, who was supposed to be the gigastar plug-in with the Dodgers struggling from the loss of Corey Seager for the season. Machado, whose public admission that he isn’t the hustling type unnerved even his own fans and admirers. Machado, who atoned for an atrocious division series with a respectable NLCS only to play like a scrub in the series, maybe even to the point where it blows a hole in his free agency market value.

For the Red Sox, who scrummed with Machado in 2017 after a hard slide into Dustin Pedroia turned into a blood feud despite Pedroia’s attempt to thwart it following Machado’s apology, Sale blowing him away with a dive bomber of a slider to end the World Series could only have been what Duke Ellington once called a cherries-and-cream topping to their Sundae evening.

The one moment Cora’s surety failed him was leaving Eduardo Rodriguez — his Game 4 starter, who hadn’t started since September and had worked out of the bullpen all postseason — in just beyond his shelf life after he plunked Freese to open the bottom of the sixth.

The next man up, Yasiel Puig, hit a monstrous three-run homer, infuriating Rodriguez enough to slam his glove to the ground and giving the Dodgers the 4-0 lead that lasted, it seems now, about two seconds before the Red Sox did yet again what they’d done most of the series — out hit, out pitch, and out play the Dodgers at just about every turn.

That’s a point some Dodgers may take a while to accept. Puig, for example: “We could’ve done more and won the championship,” he said after the game, “but it got out of our hands. We practically gifted it to Boston, who is a great team. We did things we shouldn’t have done. We made bad decisions. We did bad things on the field that gave them an easier victory.”

If you remove the second sentence whole and the final six words of the fifth sentence, Puig would have been more accurate. There was absolutely no reason this World Series should have fallen short of a seven-game contest. The Dodgers were also out-hearted by the Red Sox. No single Dodgers player seemed to show even a tenth of the passion that ignited Sale after the Puig blast in Game 4 into his expletive-arousing dugout rant to re-ignite his ball club.

Moreover, the Red Sox to a man almost couldn’t have cared less who the big men proved to be as long as they proved to be there at all. “We don’t have to depend on one person,” said Bogaerts. “We have a lot of heroes that have been chipping in throughout the series.” Especially in the second half of the Red Sox’ lineups this time around. Most of the time.

Sale pitched himself into some elite company. Only Babe Adams (1909), Ernie Shore (1916), Art Nehf (1922), Waite Hoyt (1928), Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez (1937), Paul Derringer (1940), Spud Chandler (1943), and Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser (1945) had ever gotten the first and closing outs of a World Series before Sale did it this time. Come to think of it, Sale also got the first and final outs of the Red Sox’s entire season.

He had company for Red Sox going into the record books. Pearce became only the 10th man with multi-homer World Series clinch-potential games, following Harry Hooper (1915), Babe Ruth (1928), Tony Lazzeri (1932), Duke Snider (1952), Yogi Berra (1956), Johnny Bench (1976), Reggie Jackson (1977), Eddie Murray (1983) and Kirk Gibson (1984).

The Red Sox became only the seventh team ever to lead their league in runs, win 108 or more games, and win the World Series in the same year. They join the 1909 and 1927 Pirates, the 1970 Orioles, the 1975 Reds, the 1986 Mets — to whom a far different generation of Red Sox fell so heartbreakingly — and the 1998 Yankees. Not to mention the third-winningest team for a year (regular and postseasons) behind the 2001 Mariners and the ’98 Yankees.

But you can make a case that these Red Sox had it a little rougher and were just a little better. As celebrating owner John Henry pointed out, the ’98 Yankees didn’t have to beat 100-win teams back to back to get to the World Series in the first place. Marry that to the Red Sox having four series rings in the 21st century to the Yankees’ one, and Red Sox Nation has even more bragging rights over the Empire Emeritus.

Cora, the first rookie manager to bank a World Series since Bob Brenly with the 2001 Diamondbacks and only the fifth all-time to do it (Ralph Houk, 1961; Eddie Dyer, 1946; Bucky Harris, 1924), may have turned the Red Sox right around after watching the Astros — for whom he bench-coached in 2017 — shove them out of that postseason early.

“You guys were easy to game-plan against,” Cora told his new team. “Too many bad takes.”

He turned the Red Sox’s 2017 plate patience into a something completely different. He turned them into plate grinders who went with pitches and encouraged their proclivities for playing what now seems quaint in the launch angle and three-true-outcome era: hit-and-run, run-and-hit, base path mayhem, and oh, by the way, you guys who have the power will probably get your bombs anyway. They were the third most-frequent contact hitting team in the game behind the Indians and the Astros.

Maybe the key was something a lot of managers preach without having the minds and team culture Cora fostered to back up that he meant every word of it. “You worry about tomorrow, tomorrow,” Cora believes. He managed in the moment without believing the fate of the entire universe hung on it.

Even after Game 3’s marathon ended in the lone Red Sox series loss, Cora didn’t flinch. He may have been the only man on the planet who didn’t believe the 18-inning loss would crush his team. He joined his team in cheering Eovaldi’s larger-than-life six-innings of work and shook the loss off at once.

“It’s not crushing at all. I just talked to them,” said Cora, whose highlight as a player was an 18-pitch at-bat — in which he fouled off 14 straight pitches, a taste of his eventual Red Sox champions — that ended in a two-run homer. “I told them how proud I am. The effort was amazing. That was a great baseball game. It’s probably one of the best — if not the best — game I’ve ever been part of.”

Then, they went out a little over 12 hours later and won Game 4 with a late-innings comeback after Puig’s blast looked to bury them for the night before Sale went nuclear in the Red Sox dugout. You never knew just what would rekindle the Red Sox pilot light this time around, whether an 18-inning loss, a dugout rant, or a boombox in the Fenway Park innards.

Somewhere, wherever he’s spending his offseason, young Yankees star Aaron Judge may be regretting even more that he blasted “New York, New York” as he left Fenway Park after the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the second game of the ALDS. No party he attends will possibly beat the celebrations the Red Sox have going now.

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