SEATTLE -- Mitch Moreland started loosening up by the fourth or fifth inning on Friday night, wondering when he would have his chance to impact a game the Red Sox badly wanted to win.
Manager Alex Cora’s mind was doing a different type of exercise, wondering when he should call on Moreland’s power bat.
Judging by the glowing results, Moreland and Cora both haven’t lost the magic touch that made the Red Sox the World Series champions five months ago.
Moreland finally got his chance in the top of the ninth inning and didn’t let it go to waste. Instead, he absolutely wasted a 2-0 fastball by Hunter Strickland for a three-run, pinch-hit homer that completed a furious comeback from five runs down and gave the Red Sox a satisfying 7-6 win over the Mariners.
The laser-beam had an exit velocity of 114 mph, according to Statcast, the third-hardest homer by a Boston player since 2015.
“Yeah, I hit it pretty hard. It felt pretty good,” said Moreland.
You may recall that it was Moreland who launched the three-run, pinch-hit homer that ignited the Red Sox’s comeback from 4-0 down against the Dodgers in that epic Game 4 win of the 2018 World Series that put the Red Sox on the precipice of the championship they would win the next night.
Been there, done that, right?
“Yeah, that always helps, I guess, to be in that situation,” said Moreland. “The more preparation you can get and experience you’ve gotten with it, the better you can prepare. Obviously it’s a little bit different. But yeah, still, all the same, you’re trying to go up there and do your job.”
And give Cora credit for restraining himself when he at least contemplated using Moreland to pinch-hit for Sam Travis in the seventh inning, by which time the Sox had whittled a 6-1 deficit to 6-3.
“The coaching staff, they were like, ‘We should save Mitch in case something happens later in the game,’ and we went with Blake [Swihart] first,” said Cora. “We wanted Mitch to hit with men on and put a good swing on it. He’s been working hard. He’s been working hard on this, and he was locked in. From the seventh inning on, he was preparing and was in the cage with [coaches] Ramon [Vazquez] and Andy [Barkett]. That’s what they do, they prepare. We don’t stop playing. They understand their roles, and that was a big swing by Mitch.”
Moreland’s main job for the Red Sox is to start at first base against righties. But when they face a lefty, they have a certified pro ready and waiting off the bench.
This was the fifth pinch-hit homer of Moreland’s career, including postseason. And he became the 12th player in Red Sox history to hit a pinch-hit, go-ahead homer in the ninth inning or later, and the first since Mike Carp’s grand slam at Tropicana Field on Sept. 11, 2013.
Though Moreland might make pinch-hitting look easy, he will tell you that it most certainly is not.
“Yeah, I mean it’s definitely not ideal,” said Moreland. “When you get to that situation, or you think you might be in it, you just try to prepare the best you can and be ready for it when it comes and be familiar with the situation and that’s kind of my gameplan going into it.”
Homers get Sox back in it
Not much had gone right for the Red Sox in the first two games until Moreland’s connection. Chris Sale was shelled for three homers and seven runs on Opening Day. Nathan Eovaldi was belted around for three more homers and six runs in four innings on Friday.
But as they make a habit of doing, the Red Sox didn’t stop playing. J.D. Martinez and Christian Vázquez smashed solo homers to slice the deficit to 6-4.
“Down early, we kept fighting, and I think that’s a huge component of what this team does,” said reliever Matt Barnes. “We saw it a ton last year. We’re never out of a game. Guys kept grinding, putting up zeros, the offense kept scoring and Mitch came up with a huge three-run homer.”
And the save goes to …
Cora had been making it a big mystery how he would deploy his bullpen in the late innings with a lead. After Moreland put the Sox in front on Friday, it was Barnes who was entrusted with the first save opportunity of the season.
The righty dazzled, earning his third career save by striking out two of the three batters he faced and throwing just 12 pitches in a perfect inning.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Barnes will close in the next save opportunity.
It was notable that Barnes was used with Seattle’s 2-3-4 hitters looming in the ninth. Conceivably, he could come on in the eighth when the meat of the other team’s order is due up.
“We’re sticking with the plan,” said a coy Cora after the game.
Nunez caught in between
The Red Sox might well have completed their comeback in the eighth inning if not for some bizarre baserunning by Eduardo Núñez. With the bases loaded and one out, Nunez hit a slow roller down the first-base line against Cory Gearrin. Gearrin pounced on it and alertly fired home for the first out. Nunez ducked down as he got to Gearrin to avoid the throw, and never advanced much further, as he looked back to see the play at the plate then ducked again when catcher Omar Narvaez fired to first to complete a 1-2-3 double play.
“There’s nothing you can do there,” said Cora. “You can run into it, it’s such a weird play. I think everybody in this room would have stopped, too, because you see the pitcher going into the lane and he’s going to throw. The rule says he can actually run over the pitcher. He can keep going because the lane and all that is to defend the fielder. When the throw goes from the plate to first, that’s when you have the three-foot line, but on the way to first, you can run into him and nothing happens.
“It’s such a freak play. I’ve never seen it in my life. It just happened to look that way. It looked bad and probably people are talking about it, tweeting about it, but I bet anybody who’s here would have done the same thing.”
Eduardo Rodriguez gets the start as the Red Sox take on the Mariners at 9:10 p.m. ET on Saturday in Seattle. Rodriguez comes into a season healthy for the first time as a Major Leaguer, and looks to have a breakout year. The lefty was solid when healthy last year, winning 13 games. He is 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA in three career starts in Seattle.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.