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Let the playoffs begin: Red Sox clinch berth for third straight year

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 9/12/2018 By Alex Speier

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On a night when Chris Sale began the process of building back up toward the playoffs, the Red Sox officially ensured their participation in October baseball.

For the Red Sox, Tuesday’s 7-2 victory over the Blue Jays arrived in a fashion that seemed both ill-suited and perfectly appropriate to a team that now possesses 99 victories with 17 contests to play. It was a win secured not on the strength of stars such as Sale — who made just a one-inning cameo – but instead thanks to an unusual and indeed befuddling display of late-innings depth, when even manager Alex Cora briefly got lost before reclaiming a Midas touch in the management of a roster that has afforded him a wealth of options.

On Tuesday, it was Brock Holt who provided an unusual — and, in this case, unsuspecting — source of power, a three-run homer that transformed a 2-1, seventh-inning deficit into a 4-2 lead that sent the Red Sox on their road to victory. 

BOX SCORE:  RED SOX 7, BLUE JAYS 2

Even after the fact, Holt was trying to make sense of what had happened.

“It was kind of a whirlwind,” said Holt.

The Red Sox’ league-best offense remained dormant through six innings against starter Ryan Borucki before suddenly awakening when down 2-0 in the seventh. A run-scoring Steve Pearce triple to center chased the starter. A two-out walk by Eduardo Nunez (a veritable comet hitting the earth for a player who’d taken one free pass since the start of August) against reliever Ryan Tepera confronted Cora with a choice.

The manager knew he’d send a pinch hitter to the plate in place of struggling catcher Sandy Leon. But which one?

Mitch Moreland stood on deck during the Nunez walk. He started toward the plate with runners on the corners. But with a lefthander up in Toronto’s bullpen, Cora and the Sox bench reconsidered.

They didn’t want to see Moreland face a lefthander, and they likewise didn’t want to lose the opportunity to use Moreland later in the game. And so, with Moreland halfway to the plate, Cora changed course, pulling Moreland back.

After some scrambling in the Red Sox dugout, Holt was sent to the plate. But if Toronto summoned a lefty, the Sox were prepared to send Brandon Phillips to the plate.

“I can’t remember the last time I went on deck to pinch hit and then got pulled back from a pinch-hit spot. That was a new one for me, but man, I’ll do it every time if we win,” said Moreland.

“[Cora] called me back in. I got over there and he kind of explained the situation to me. I was like, ‘Great, let’s see what happens.’ ”

Holt didn’t have much time to think about a game plan against Tepera. He’d been taking swings in the batting cage beneath the Sox dugout. Suddenly, a commotion interrupted his preparation for an unknown situation.

“I went up, put my helmet on, put my shinguard on, and tried to do something good,” said Holt.


On a 2-and-2 count, Holt jumped on a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, the breath of every player on the Red Sox bench perhaps blowing it just into the first row of the grandstand in right field. Holt, who last month hit a game-winning homer in Philadelphia, became the first Red Sox player to hit two go-ahead pinch-hit homers in a season.

“That’s probably the most fun homer that I’ve ever hit,” Holt beamed. “I haven’t hit very many of them, but that was a lot of fun for me, to see the guys’ reactions.”

Those reactions were partly out of delight for Holt – and partly because of the opportunity it presented to enjoy the moment at the expense of Cora, who has rarely suffered from indecision this year, but is more than willing to accept whatever grief his players might offer when he does so.

“They can get on me and make fun of me, and the same way, I make fun of them,” said Cora. “It was just one of those that I felt it was the right move there.”

Indeed it was, in a charmed regular season in which so many choices made by the first-year manager have yielded sevens. A moment such as Holt’s homer (the punctuation mark on a four-run seventh, which was followed by a three-run eighth that blew the game open) offered a reminder of the breadth of contributions that have laid the groundwork for a historic season, and the relationships that have grown on the road to October.

“Obviously, with this team, it doesn’t matter who goes out there, who steps in the box, who gets on the mound,” said Moreland. “We have 100 percent confidence in each other. It showed. Brock went up there tonight and won the game for us with a big at-bat . . . That was an awesome game, awesome win for us.”

Holt’s blast allowed the Red Sox to clinch a spot in the postseason on a night that already had October significance with Sale’s first outing since Aug. 12, following a four-week stint with shoulder inflammation. On a night when the Red Sox planned to limit him to two innings and 40 pitches, the lefthander worked only through a 26-pitch first inning.

Though he didn’t allow a run, struck out two, and elicited seven swings-and-misses, Sale labored through the frame, allowing a double and hitting a batter. When he escaped the jam by getting a fly out, he relocated to the bullpen for 14 additional pitches.

“His mechanics weren’t there,” Cora said of Sale. “It made no sense to send him out there for 10 pitches, 12 pitches, whatever [in the second inning]. We’re taking care of the guy.”

His early departure left the remaining eight innings to teammates, with fellow starter Nathan Eovaldi entrusted with the lion’s share of those. Eovaldi entered in the third for the eighth relief appearance of his career and his first game action since Sept. 3.

He delivered three strong innings before fading in his fourth frame.

The righthander — who has allowed 26 runs (19 earned) in his last 26 innings — allowed two runs in 3 innings and was positioned to take the loss before Boston’s comeback ensured the Red Sox’ third straight trip to the playoffs.

“We’ve got a shot now,” said Cora. “We’re in.”

Even so, while securing a playoff berth represented a necessary first accomplishment for the team’s October ambitions, members of the team viewed it as a precursor event rather than a landmark worthy of true celebration.

There will be time, the team expects, for champagne. Tuesday night was not among them.

“Obviously, we knew if we won, we would be in there. Any time you make the playoffs, and get a chance to be that last team, that’s pretty special. We’re excited about that,” said Holt, “but we’ve got more work to do.”

Related slideshow: 2018 MLB season (Provided by photo services)

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