5 reasons Red Sox prevailed over Rays

October 13th, 2021

BOSTON -- Television cameras panned across the home dugout at Tropicana Field during the late innings of Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday, capturing a glimpse of Randy Arozarena. The Rays wunderkind chomped gleefully on popcorn kernels, resting on the dugout steps to enjoy the show while his team rolled to a convincing victory.

The first postseason meeting of these AL East heavyweights seemed decided, and Arozarena used some of that salty carbohydrate fuel to steal home plate an inning later. But like any big-screen blockbuster, there were plot twists to come: Tampa Bay didn't win another game after that 5-0 victory, and the Red Sox were the ones partying by the end of the ALDS on Monday.

"I didn't even see it during the game," Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. "We were losing, so we were trying to get back in the game. But I saw it later and I was like, 'Damn, they were really doing that?' I mean, they felt comfortable. The next day, they came out and hit that grand slam, they were up 5-2. We just chipped, chipped, chipped away."

Postgame, Bogaerts was thrilled to see: "FLIGHT TO TAMPA: CANCELLED" written on a whiteboard in the clubhouse after Boston's series-clinching 6-5 win in Game 4. The Red Sox partied hard, and Bogaerts said he felt the momentum shift soon after Jordan Luplow's first-inning grand slam off Chris Sale in Game 2.

Here's how the Red Sox advanced past the 100-win Rays, earning the right to face the Astros with a pennant on the line:

Bats alive
The Red Sox had a staggering 47 hits across the last three games of the ALDS; suffice it to say that they did not panic after Shane McClanahan and three relievers blanked them in the series opener. Boston blamed bad luck, pointing to rockets that found gloves -- for example, Bobby Dalbec came away unrewarded for squaring up two balls at 104.3 mph (lineout) and 105.3 mph (double play grounder).

"You guys looked at it like a shutout, but we were all super confident about it because we all hit the ball hard," outfielder J.D. Martinez said. "We kept talking about that: 'Dude, the ball just didn't bounce our way.'"

Their trust paid dividends, especially when Kiké Hernández savored a turn as the hottest hitter on the planet. Of course, it was Hernández who lifted the sacrifice fly that decided the ALDS. Hernández's nine hits in the final three games tied a Major League postseason record for most in a three-game span.

"We felt very comfortable with him," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "He was putting good at-bats after good at-bats, and he did an amazing job against a tough pitching staff. We're very proud of him."

What a relief!
Tanner Houck didn't expect to hear his number called in the second inning of Game 2 on Friday, but the right-handed rookie was ready for the assignment. Houck had been lifted from a perfect game in his final outing of the regular season on Oct. 2, promised by Cora that there would be more important outs to register.

Houck restored order Friday night by spinning five innings of one-run, two-hit ball, extending a personal string of batters retired to 30 over four appearances before allowing a Wander Franco single. Ji-Man Choi later homered off Houck, but by that point Boston had already taken the lead. Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock and Ryan Brasier were also crucial in the series.

Meanwhile, eyebrows were raised when Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to right-hander Matt Wisler in the fifth inning of a tied Game 2, bypassing Pete Fairbanks and Andrew Kittredge. Battling inflammation in his right middle finger, Wisler hung a slider that Martinez belted for a two-run homer.

"We had everything going our way," the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier said. "They hit some very clutch homers shortly after that to get them back in the game. Then they scored 14 more runs after that, it seemed like. I feel like if we would have gotten two or three shutdown innings right there … it's crazy how momentum works in baseball."

More bounce to the ounce
Thirteen innings, spanning five hours and 14 minutes, were necessary to decide Sunday’s Game 3 -- a contest that will probably be remembered for the “magic bullet” hop that Kiermaier's 13th inning drive took off the right-field wall. When the ball hit Hunter Renfroe's right thigh and landed in the Boston bullpen, Yandy Díaz returned to third base, stranded there when Mike Zunino struck out.

The umpires correctly applied Rule 5.06(b)(4)(H), awarding each runner two bases from the time of the pitch; crew chief Sam Holbrook even brought his copy of the 2021 MLB Umpire Manual to read for reporters. Kiermaier called it a "heartbreaker," an outcome made more unfortunate for Tampa Bay when Christian Vázquez hit a walk-off two-run homer in the home half of the 13th.

"I think everybody's frustrated [with] it," said the Rays' Brandon Lowe. "In the long-run of things, I guess it really wouldn't have mattered. Vázquez did hit a two-run homer, not a solo walk-off. It would have been nice to have a one-run lead. It changes a lot of things in it. But when you look back on it, he hit a two-run homer, so that one run might not have made much of a difference."

Home cooking
Don't underestimate the impact that two boisterous, frenzied Fenway crowds had on this series. Especially coming off an empty-ballpark pandemic season in which Verdugo said the Red Sox felt like they played a full slate of Spring Training games. Having 35,000-plus packing the seats made a difference.

That seemed especially true in Game 4, when the Boston Marathon festivities spilled through the turnstiles. Cora noted that the crowd seemed to have been -- ahem -- well-lubricated long before first pitch, and their sing-song chanting created an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors. The fans may have even played a part in Boston knocking McClanahan for five runs.

"We had just seen him in the first game, so I think being on the road, being in front of our fan base -- that was a little bit different for him," Verdugo said. "He left a couple of pitches out over the plate, and hey, we didn't miss them."