BOSTON – For 247 minutes Monday afternoon, a neat little slice of October baseball, rich with the tension reserved for later in the month, unfolded underneath an overcast sky that a hacky writer might use as foreshadowing. Aces pitched out of the bullpen, and leads changed hands, and a kid not old enough to legally drink hit an inside-the-park home run, and a guy throwing 90-mph curveballs couldn’t do his job, and rendered to practical afterthought was the tenuous future of the Boston Red Sox manager, who barely saw the game after getting ejected in the second inning.
In history books, the box score will look the same as any other. It will say the Houston Astros beat the Red Sox, 5-4, in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. The Red Sox’s season is over. The Astros’ will continue in the AL Championship Series. Fin.
The story behind the story – the one of how Chris Sale and Justin Verlander, starting pitchers extraordinaire, wound up coming out of the bullpen, and of how the tenure of World Series-winning manager John Farrell may have ended getting run from a game he needed to win – makes Game 4 just a little different, a little more special than a run-of-the-mill postseason showdown.
Because it was close, and because the Red Sox spared themselves the indignity of a sweep with a Game 3 win, this didn’t have nearly the solemn feel of past Red Sox seasons, when the end of the year had all the charm of a whisky-less wake. No city takes losing worse than Boston, and if that comes off as both a compliment and slight, well, good. It is simply the reality for the Red Sox, who bring out levels of parochialism and zeal unseen elsewhere in sports. They are not the heartbeat of this city; they’re all four chambers.
And when something goes wrong, or at least as wrong as it can coming off back-to-back AL East championships, out come the daggers, for the Boston Red Sox are not an organization that divorces itself from anything tidily. Players, executives and, in Farrell’s case, managers all get the same treatment on their way out of town – and, at this point, it would be no surprise if the Red Sox offered him a kindly pat on the back with one hand and a one-way ticket with the other.
Asked postgame if he expected to be back next season, Farrell demurred: “We just walked off the field 10 minutes ago.”
Asked if he would discuss Farrell’s status, team president Dave Dombrowski shook his head and told Yahoo Sports: “I have things to do.”
Asked if he thought Farrell should return next season, Dustin Pedroia, the closest thing the Red Sox have to a captain, answered: “I think John did a great job. We won the division. There was never any quit in this team. I’m proud of everybody in here. We dealt with a lot. And our fight continued every single day. I know we didn’t achieve our goals. But I’m proud of how everybody went about their business and showed up for everybody and played to win.”
Nowhere in that answer to a binary question was the word “Yes.”
Which may be getting semantic and all, but it’s important, because Farrell finds himself in a surprisingly awkward situation for a manager with consecutive division titles. Dombrowski gutted the Red Sox’s farm system to surround a homegrown core with frontline talent, and for it here is what he has to show: two first-round exits. Before that, Farrell presided over a pair of last-place finishes, and the question about whether he is the right manager to lead this team forward is perfectly reasonable.
That he wasn’t there to lead it for the final seven innings of the season was almost fitting. Bench coach Gary DiSarcina took over in Farrell’s stead and matched wits with A.J. Hinch, the Astros manager whose contempt for orthodoxy plumped this game with the pressure every instant classic needs. Sale, the Red Sox’s ace, had spelled starter Rick Porcello to start the fourth inning. Hinch knew this meant the spotty weather that had spit on the field for most of the game would hold, since there was no way Boston would burn Sale only to have a weather delay knock him out of the game. With one on in the fifth inning, Hinch yanked starter Charlie Morton and countered with Verlander.
Over the course of his 13-year career, Verlander had faced 10,938 batters. Every one of those had been as a starting pitcher. Verlander is as routinized a pitcher as there is in baseball, obsessive over every last detail of his starts, from the music he listens to beforehand to the placement of towels in the landing beneath the dugout. He is, frankly, the very last person who might cotton to this new paradigm in which starters aren’t necessarily starters.
“It’s the first time in my career out of the bullpen,” Verlander said. “Not just in my professional career. From, like, Little League forward.”
Even so, the move made sense. The Astros’ fireman, Chris Devenski, had pitched in each of the first three games. Their next-best option, Joe Musgrove, had gone the day before and was unlikely to bridge the innings. Hinch could’ve theoretically cobbled together a patchwork relief solution. With starter Dallas Keuchel ready to go on full rest for Game 5 if necessary, though, Hinch was emboldened to give his best pitcher the ball and let him hold a 2-1 lead.
It lasted five pitches. The first four Verlander threw to rookie Andrew Benintendi were fastballs. The fifth, a thigh-high slider, was wrapped around Pesky Pole in right field for a two-run home run. Boston led, 3-2. The crowd of 37,305 roared. And with Sale in and closer Craig Kimbrel ready to throw two innings, the lead felt safe.
Sale cruised through the fourth and fifth and sixth and worked out of a two-on, two-out jam in the seventh. The Red Sox sent him back for the eighth, even with Alex Bregman, a notorious crusher of left-handed pitchers, due up first. Bregman played to type. His home run over the Green Monster tied the game. Sale stayed in, got an out, allowed a single, got another out and yielded to Kimbrel, who walked the first batter he faced on four pitches.
Up stepped Josh Reddick, one of the Astros’ veteran free agent signings this offseason. He was drafted and developed by the Red Sox, and as he stood in against arguably the game’s best closer, the stuff was overwhelming. Fastballs at 100, 100, 99. Two curveballs at 90. Fastball at 99. Foul. Fastball at 100. Foul again. Then, after being so careful, Kimbrel left his 99-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, and Reddick whacked it between the shortstop and third baseman. Pinch runner Cameron Maybin scored. The Astros led, 4-3. A Carlos Beltran double off Kimbrel in the top of the ninth added an insurance run.
Houston needed it. Rookie Rafael Devers, who a day earlier became the fifth-youngest player ever to hit a postseason home run, launched a slider from Astros closer Ken Giles to center field. It kicked off the wall and caromed away from an outstretched George Springer, found its way to a barren spot in the outfield and sat there, begging to be grabbed. By the time it was, Devers was rounding third base and on his way to the 17th inside-the-park home run in postseason history.
Fenway rumbled. Giles, in his second inning after a long top of the ninth, took a deep breath and settled in. Christian Vazquez grounded out. Jackie Bradley Jr. struck out. And Pedroia, on the eighth pitch, rolled a ball to second baseman Jose Altuve, who threw it to Yuli Gurriel for the final out.
The Astros celebrated. The Red Sox skulked off the field and into a clubhouse where they would lament all that had gone wrong. Dombrowski spent a few moments in Farrell’s office, then left and started to walk from the somber first-base side of the stadium to the jovial third-base area, where the Astros celebrated inside the cramped road clubhouse and outside with their families. Dombrowski found Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, wished him luck and continued walking, another disappointing season done, a future to plan.
The Red Sox will say soon enough if that includes John Farrell. He’s under contract for the 2018 season, so the onus is on the team to determine whether he returns. Managing in 2017 is a tough gig, especially for a group of executives that didn’t hire you, especially in Boston, where the microscope is of the electron variety. Though the clouds were dark Monday, the storm didn’t come. It seems as though it’s just a matter of time.