BOSTON – For the second straight night, the Boston Red Sox celebrated a walk-off win over the Tampa Bay Rays as a packed Fenway Park erupted in deafening euphoria. Sunday’s walk-off capped a 13-inning gauntlet to give the Sox a series lead. Monday’s sent them to the ALCS, upsetting the 100-win, reigning AL-champion Rays with a 6-5 victory that showcased a relentless and versatile run-scoring machine.
“It was an amazing day,” manager Alex Cora.
And about the atmosphere: “That was loud. That was actually better than yesterday.”
Sunday night’s hero, Christian Vázquez, was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd when he came to bat in the bottom of the third inning Monday. He rewarded the Fenway faithful with a single that sparked a barrage of offense.
A whole turn through the lineup later, Vázquez struck out to end the inning. In between, the Red Sox clobbered the baseball a combined 2,335 feet, and it would have been a lot further if not for that pesky green wall looming over left field.
“We will always hit,” Cora said before the game. “When we talk about the Red Sox, you're not going to talk about pitching and defense and timely hitting. You talk about the Red Sox, it's like they're going to score runs.”
All told, five runs scored in the frame on six hits, including a three-run shot from Rafael Devers.
Over the next five innings, the Rays scratched out five runs of their own to send the Red Sox into the bottom of the ninth needing one more to go from preseason picks to finish just above the Baltimore Orioles to a last minute wild-card berth to the American League Championship Series.
A single, a sac bunt, a quirky infield single, a stolen base and a pinch runner put men on second and third for Kiké Hernández, who had seen this moment coming and was ready for it.
When he came up in the 11th inning Sunday night with a runner on second, Hernández was sure he was about to win it, about to make his mark on Boston. He failed to deliver then, although it didn’t matter. But he realized as the top of the ninth was winding down on Monday that with his spot in the lineup due up fourth, they would either walk it off before him, the game would go to extras or he would come to the plate with the winning run on base.
“So jogging from center field to the dugout, I jogged a little slower than I usually do,” Hernández said. “I was just talking to myself. I was like, ‘All right, this is our chance. If you get up to the plate, you're going to have a chance to win the game, and you can't let this situation get too big.’”
All it took was a sacrifice fly and by the time pinch runner Danny Santana crossed home plate well ahead of the throw, the rest of the team had spilled out of the dugout to smother him in celebration.
“Old school baseball right there,” Cora said. “Fundamental baseball, and we won the ALDS playing good fundamental baseball.”
The day before, Hunter Renfroe had crushed a near Rays rally by misplaying a hard-hit ball almost to the wall into a ground-rule double. So it was an auspicious sign when he crushed their hopes of striking early by making a spectacular catch on a searing, 102.2 mph Randy Arozarena line drive for the first out of the game.
For the second out, Eduardo Rodríguez — who was pressed into duty after Nick Pivetta threw four scoreless frames in Game 3’s 13-inning victory — got wunderkind Wander Franco to strike out, that is if you believe the home plate umpire, which Franco did not.
The 20-year-old would go on to homer in the loss to cap his historic, if brief, inaugural postseason appearance. That was a rare bright spot for a Rays’ offense that was second in runs scored during the regular season, but fell incredibly flat come October. Brandon Lowe, who hit 39 home runs this year, entered Monday 0-for-14 in the series. Manager Kevin Cash said there “wasn't even one iota of thought of taking him out of the lineup.” He went 0-for-4.
Meanwhile, the Rays’ eminently reliable and seemingly endlessly replicable carousel of dominant pitchers looked more like a rotation that had lost Blake Snell (to trade), Charlie Morton (after declining his option), and Tyler Glasnow (to Tommy John surgery) since they played in the World Series last fall. Relying on the rookie Shanes, McClanahan and Baz, to make up the difference proved faulty in high-pressure situations.
A first half spent largely in first place seemed like a fluke from the Red Sox, especially after they faltered down the stretch, besieged by injuries and a prolonged COVID-19 outbreak (they are the only postseason team below the 85% vaccination threshold) to the point that they were still fighting for a wild-card spot on the final day of the season.
But a difficult division, the sting of IL stints, a dismal 2020 without Cora or Rodriguez or Chris Sale, and the long hangover from the Mookie Betts trade may have masked the potency of a lineup that ultimately scored 26 runs and collectively slashed .328/.372/.547 in the division series.
The Boston Red Sox are not what you’d consider an underrated or under-recognized team. When Franco struck out on a couple of questionable calls, Rays fans on Twitter cried (maybe not totally facetiously) that the game was rigged to give big-market Boston a better chance to advance. But the Red Sox went about as under-the-radar as a team just three years removed from a World Series win possibly could in 2021. They’ll arrive at the ALCS as underdogs, a holdover from an offseason of low expectations and a summer of come-from-behind wins.
When Hernández joined the Red Sox this spring, fresh off a world championship but looking to play every day, he saw a team with powerhouse potential and a chip on their shoulder.
“I was like, man, I don't understand why people are talking about this team like we're the worst team in that division or whatever. I was like this is a solid squad. They won the World Series a few years ago. They know what it takes to win. It's not like it's a scrappy roster or anything. It's a good roster,” he said after the victory.
“Here we are surprising everybody but ourselves.”