NEW YORK -- How would this 108-win machine the Red Sox built fare in the playoffs?
Judging by the joyous pile-up that took place at Yankee Stadium -- the ultimate enemy territory -- they are off to a flying start.
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This balanced Boston squad, led by rookie manager Alex Cora, avoided the American League Division Series elimination that ruined the 2016 and '17 seasons. The Sox fended off a dangerous Yankees team (100 wins during the regular season) in a harrowingly stressful bottom of the ninth inning and held on for a 4-3 victory in Game 4 of the ALDS on Tuesday night.
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"Like I've been saying all along, we're a complete team, and we count on everybody to win games," said Cora. "The last two games, if you think about it, it was fun to watch."
The next stop will be the AL Championship Series, which will feature a matchup with the defending World Series champion Astros, the team Cora served as bench coach for last year while taking out Boston in the ALDS. Game 1 is Saturday night at Fenway Park. It is the first time Boston has advanced this far since the World Series championship season of 2013.
"Well, it feels absolutely tremendous, because it's a situation where we all know that we won the division, we won 108 games but we haven't been able to advance the last couple of years," said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "Taking this next step like this is a great step. We're not finished. We don't want to be finished, but you've got to take this first step, and we haven't done it in a while."
Backed by a strong starting effort by Rick Porcello, a collaborative bullpen effort -- which included Chris Sale -- and timely hitting early, the Sox took a second straight road game from the Yankees to avoid a winner-take-all Game 5.
• Sale pitches scoreless eighth inning
"It's nice to get past the first round, for sure, absolutely," said Porcello, who earned the win, his first in five career postseason starts. "I think we've been a good enough ballclub to do so the last three years, and this year we finally broke through."
There was all kinds of drama in the bottom of the ninth inning when an uncharacteristically shaky Craig Kimbrel came on with a 4-1 lead and gave the Yankees life. The closer walked Aaron Judge and gave up a single to Didi Gregorius, putting runners at first and second with nobody out for the ever-dangerous Giancarlo Stanton. Kimbrel struck out Stanton, but he walked Luke Voit and hit Neil Walker to force in a run. Gary Sanchez hit a towering fly ball to deep left that had many at Yankee Stadium anticipating a walk-off grand slam, but the ball died at the warning track and fell into the glove of Andrew Benintendi.
"Well, it got a little exciting there at the end," said Kimbrel. "We've got [a three-run lead] there, and the goal is to come off the field with a win, and we were able to do it. Got a big strikeout of Stanton, and the 3-2 [pitch] to Sanchez was pretty nerve-wracking, but it got us to the second out, and we were able to get through it."
"It was exciting," said Porcello. "That's 2018 baseball; you have to wait for the replay. It didn't take away from our celebration. We felt pretty damn good about it."
Porcello came up big early, holding the Bombers to just a run on four hits while throwing 65 pitches over five innings. The veteran sinkerballer also got two big outs in relief in Game 1, when the bullpen appeared to be on the verge of breaking.
"With our bullpen and everything that was going on in the game, you don't think [about pitch count]," Porcello said. "You think of how many outs we need to win, and that's it."
This time, Cora went right to his highest-leverage setup man, Matt Barnes, who cut through the dangerous 2-3-4 (Judge, Gregorius and Stanton) portion of the lineup for a shutdown sixth. Ryan Brasier stifled New York in the seventh.
Prior to the game, Cora characterized the chances of Sale pitching in Game 4 as "very slim." Perhaps the manager was just talking about Sale's frame.
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
The ace stifled the Yankees in a 13-pitch eighth inning, ending it by freezing Aaron Hicks for strike three on a wicked slider. Sale had been lobbying to get some bullpen outs ever since the Red Sox arrived in New York during Sunday's off-day.
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"He's been talking about it for three days already," said Cora. "In the seventh, we got together, [pitching coach] Dana [LeVangie], [bench coach] Ron [Roenicke] and myself. We already talked to the training staff about if he was OK to come in. He was in the bullpen, but it was kind of like his day. Everybody was on board. I even shouted to the dugout, 'Hey, we're all in. He's coming in.'"
Sale relished the moment.
"It was the first thing I said to AC when I came in the clubhouse today. I told him I wanted the ball at some point," Sale said. "I told him and I walked away, and he started laughing. I don't know if that was a good or a bad thing, but I feel like it worked out."
For the second night in a row, the Red Sox broke out first, this time against Carsten Sabathia. It started with some good fortune, when Sabathia hit Benintendi on the first pitch of the third inning. Steve Pearce followed with a single up the middle, and Benintendi raced to third. J.D. Martinez got the first run of the game home on a sac fly to deep center. With two outs, Ian Kinsler hit a scorching liner over the head of left fielder Brett Gardner for an RBI double. And Nunez made it 3-0 Red Sox when he laced a first-pitch cutter into left for an RBI single, his first hit of the series.
Sabathia came out after three, and Yankees manager Aaron Boone went to lefty Zach Britton. Christian Vazquez greeted him with what looked like a harmless flyout to right, but it barely carried into the stands for a solo homer, marking the end of a 69 at-bat long ball drought for the catcher that dated back to June 26.
The Red Sox didn't score after the fourth, and they got away with it -- barely.
After outlasting their rivals in the regular season to win the AL East, the Sox did so again when it counted most in October.
"The team we just beat in this series is a phenomenal team. From start to finish, they were a great team. They really were," said Barnes. "And none of these games are easy. We're going to have many more years of fighting this division with them. Beating a team like that, it's tough. And when you can come out on top, it kind of shows what kind of team we have from start to finish from the ownership down to the coaching staff to the players. We take great pride in that, and we're very excited to move forward."
Moving forward was the sweetest two-word phrase the Red Sox could possibly say after their misfortunes the last two Octobers.
"I thought our approach in the playoffs was lacking a little bit. We just didn't have the best approach last year," said Red Sox owner John Henry.
As for what is next?
"It should be quite a series," said Henry. "I think we're ready."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Porcello pops up Hicks: The only major stress Porcello faced was in the bottom of the fifth. After a sacrifice fly by Gardner made it 4-1, the Yankees had Torres on first with two outs. Hicks worked Porcello for a tough nine-pitch at-bat, but the Yankees' leadoff man ultimately popped up to Kinsler at second to end the threat.
"We had a three-run lead, short porch in right, dangerous left-handed hitter," said Porcello. "To me, that was one of the biggest at-bats of the game, and I was able to bear down and get him out."
Scoring first was again vital for the Red Sox in Game 4. In the 2018 postseason, teams that score first are 14-2, with the Indians taking both losses. The Sox were 74-15 (.831 winning percentage) when they scored first in the regular season.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
While Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. get most of the accolades in the outfield when it comes to defense, Benintendi is a pretty solid defender in his own right. To open the bottom of the third, Benintendi raced to the gap in left-center and made a fine catch to take extra bases away from Torres. According to Statcast™, Torres had a hit probability of 57 percent on the drive.
HE SAID IT
"Extremely [nerve-wracking], I guess is the best way to say it. In a game like this, your stomach is churning the whole game. And it was churning really fast at the end of the game. It was one of those things, you're just hoping to get that next out, and we were in a position where it happened. Craig buckled down, and he got the job done." -- Dombrowski
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Red Sox experienced delayed gratification on the final play of the game. Nunez made a tremendous play on the slow roller by Torres, but his throw to first forced Pearce to lunge for it at first base. Give Pearce credit for hanging on to the ball and keeping his foot on the bag. Torres was just late getting to the base, but the Yankees challenged. Once the call was confirmed, the Red Sox piled on top of each other in celebration of their accomplishment.
Fenway Park will be rocking on Saturday night when the Astros come in for Game 1 of the ALCS. It should be a tremendous pitching matchup between likely starters Sale and Justin Verlander. It will be a rematch of Game 1 of the ALDS last year, when Verlander and the Astros routed Sale and the Red Sox. FIrst pitch is slated for 8:09 p.m. ET.