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Vazquez, Red Sox still have a lot to show

@paul_casella
September 15, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- Red Sox manager Alex Cora acknowledged that he likely would have handled multiple things differently during this weekend's series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park had his club still been in postseason contention. He may have used his bench differently in the later innings of Saturday's victory.

PHILADELPHIA -- Red Sox manager Alex Cora acknowledged that he likely would have handled multiple things differently during this weekend's series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park had his club still been in postseason contention.

He may have used his bench differently in the later innings of Saturday's victory. Mookie Betts and Brock Holt might have attempted to play through their ailments. That said, the Red Sox don't plan on mailing in the final two weeks of the season. Nor do they care about playing spoiler, despite dealing a massive blow to the Phillies' postseason chances with Sunday's 6-3 victory to complete a sweep in the brief two-game Interleague set.

"It’s not that we want to spoil people’s parties or whatever," Cora said prior to the series. "No, we want to play because we want to win games."

Box score

Frankly, it's uncharted territory for Cora in his brief tenure as Boston's skipper. At this time last year, the Red Sox were 8 1/2 games better than any other team in baseball and had all but wrapped up home-field advantage for their eventual World Series run. Cora's only concern was finding the right balance to keep everyone healthy and fresh down the stretch.

"My only experience as a coach is playing all the way until Nov. 1," Cora said. "But at the same time, there are a few things that I’m watching and looking ahead to see what happens over the next couple days, couple weeks."

It's an opportunity for someone like Rick Porcello to prove he can still contribute to a big league rotation, even if it's not in Boston. It's a chance for someone like Andrew Benintendi to end a down season on a high note. For some, like Christian Vázquez, it's simply a time to put the icing on a breakout year.

All of that was on display, to some extent, in Sunday's win.

Vazquez keeps rolling

While Porcello and Benintendi look for answers, Vazquez is simply focused on staying in a groove over the next two weeks. He continued his breakout campaign Sunday by clubbing his first career grand slam in the third inning. He added a solo homer in the sixth for his first career multi-homer game. Vazquez had been stuck on 19 homers since Aug. 27.

Grand slams mean 30% off pizza

“A lot," Vazquez said, when asked how much he'd been thinking about hitting his 20th homer. "Yeah, it’s tough to see that No. 19 up there, but now it’s 21. It’s very important to finish strong. Then come into next year and keep rolling.”

Vazquez also had an RBI double and a clutch hit to set up the game-winning sacrifice fly in Saturday's victory. After struggling to a .207 average and only three homers in 80 games last year, Vazquez is hitting .273 with 21 homers and 65 RBIs this season.

"He's having a hell of a year," Porcello said of his batterymate. "I hope he keeps going. The sky's the limit for him."

Porcello finishing strong

It's no secret that Porcello has had a forgettable season in the final year of his four-year, $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox. He entered Sunday with a career-high 5.83 ERA, and had allowed at least five runs in eight of his last 14 outings.

Porcello held the Phillies to two runs over five innings while racking up six strikeouts, his most since July 31. His curveball was perhaps the best it has been all season, with Porcello inducing six swinging strikes on his 19 offerings with the pitch. That matched the total from his previous four starts combined -- and he hadn't forced more than one swing and miss with that pitch in any of his last three starts.

"Rick is going to be 31 [years old] next year. He’s still young, and he works hard and he loves this game and he loves working at his craft," Cora said. "Whatever he can find in the next few weeks, I know he’s going to benefit from."

As for what happens once the season ends, Porcello said he hasn't put much thought into it yet.

"I haven't gotten anybody out in two months, so I figure I better get somebody out again before I start taking those steps," Porcello said. "Whatever's going to happen is going to happen, it'll take care of itself.

"Honestly, it's been a tough year, a frustrating year. It's been a grind physically and mentally. I'm still here with the Red Sox and I'm trying to finish this contract up."

Getting Benintendi on track

Benintendi delivered the game-winning pinch-hit sacrifice fly on Saturday before reaching base three times and scoring a pair of runs out of the leadoff spot on Sunday. He also struck out for the 136th time this season.

"This kid’s striking out 130 times, that’s not normal. For him to strike out 130-something times, he knows it," Cora said. "He has a few ideas of what he’s going to work on during the offseason. This guy’s going to bounce back. And I say ‘bounce back’ -- you look at his numbers, if that’s a bad season, wow. Just a few things he didn’t do this year that I do believe he’s going to get better at."

Benintendi has chased 30.3 percent of pitches outside the zone this season, compared to just 24.0 percent last year. Overall, he's swinging at more than half the pitches he's seen (51.6 percent) after swinging at just 45.9 percent in 2018. As a result, pitchers have started throwing him fewer pitches in the zone, and his whiff rate has jumped from 19.3 percent in '18 to 25.0 percent in '19.

Sunday was a step in the right direction, as Benintendi swung at only two of the 11 pitches he saw outside the zone. He lined one of those two into right field for his second hit of the day.

"I do believe he’s a 20-homer guy, 45 doubles -- a complete player," Cora said. "A lot of people love the home runs and all that. I love the complete player. He can be a .400 OBP guy with 20 [steals] and 20 homers and 45 doubles and play good defense. We’ll take that player."

Paul Casella is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella.