Baseball

With a Second-Straight Walk-Off Win, Boston Advances to the ALCS

BOSTON — Unlike Sunday’s ALDS Game 3, this one wasn’t quite an instant classic. But it was nonetheless a drama-filled contest that culminated in a final swing of the bat that sent Fenway Park into a state of euphoria. When all was said and done, the Boston Red Sox had defeated the Tampa Bay Rays, thereby winning a hard-fought series in four games and advancing to the ALCS. The final score was 6-5.

Randy Arozarena led off the game by driving a 3-2 pitch from Eduardo Rodriguez up the gap in right center, the trajectory taking it close to the same spot where a pinball-carom caused controversy on Sunday night. This time, Hunter Renfroe made a clean catch, robbing the Tampa Bay outfielder of what looked like a sure double with a lunging, backhanded grab. More spectacular to the naked eye than the .500 expected batting average calculated by Statcast, the catch set the tone for the first two frames.

It was Tampa Bay’s defense that shone after Rodriquez recorded a one-two-three top half. Arozarena and Wander Franco made stellar plays in the bottom half, and Kevin Kiermaier did what Kevin Kiermaier does in the following inning, stealing a hit with a diving catch.

Rodriguez continued dealing. Coming off a Game 1 start in which he didn’t get out of the second inning, the 28-year-old southpaw fanned five over the first three frames with nary a Rays batter reaching. The last of those punch-outs, which came against Austin Meadows leading off the third, was notable for its longevity. A 17-pitch at-bat that featured eight consecutive foul balls after the count went full ended with Meadows waving at an 81.7-mph Rodriguez slider. The next two batters were retired on just three pitches.

Shane McClanahan, who hurled five scoreless innings in Game 1, replaced Collin McHugh to start the bottom half of the third inning. He was gone by the time it ended. The young left-hander had survived hard contact unscathed in his previous two outings against the Red Sox — a subject addressed in this past Sunday’s Notes column — but he wasn’t quite so fortunate this time around. With two out, Rafael Devers launched a 404-foot home run into the center field bleachers, giving the home team a 3-0 lead. They weren’t done. Xander Bogaerts singled, Alex Verdugo doubled him in, and J.D. Martinez knocked home a fifth tally with a single of his own.

At 5-0, it appeared that the Red Sox were firmly in command.

The Rays had other ideas. A run-scoring groundout by Meadows in the fifth seemed harmless enough, but then the best 20-year-old baseball player in the world made his presence felt in the sixth. Rodriguez departed with one out and Kiermaier on base, and Wander Franco greeted Tanner Houck with a 418 foot howitzer that cleared the high wall in center. The score now stood 5-3, with a once-boisterous crowd of 38,447 suddenly less secure in their belief that the home team would advance to the ALCS.

Briefly rejuvenated in the bottom of the seventh, that belief was summarily squelched by the Tampa Bay defense. With runners on the corners, Bogaerts bounced into deftly-turned 5-4-3 double play. The Boston faithful resumed holding their collective breath.

The craved-for exhalation wasn’t forthcoming. Mike Zunino led off the top of the eighth with a double off of Ryan Brasier, and Kiermaier followed with another of the same, making it 5-4. Then came a game-tying single by Arozarena (who else?), who advanced to second when Renfroe eschewed hitting the cutoff man and instead made a misguided throw home in an attempt to get the speedy Kiermaier at the plate.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, unnecessarily allowing Arozarena to get in scoring position didn’t cost them. Garrett Whitlock, a Rule 5 pick who defied the odds by emerging as Boston’s best reliever this year, came on to retire Franco, Brandon Lowe, and Nelson Cruz, none of whom got the ball out of the infield.

Defense returned to center stage in the bottom of the eighth. A Franco throwing error put Verdugo on second to begin the inning, a misplay that was followed by a Martinez pop fly that failed to move along the runner. Then came Kiermaier’s second defensive gem of the evening. Renfroe hit a 323-foot fly ball to right-center, and the strong-armed, three-time Gold Glove winner gunned down Verdugo trying to advance to third. Replay review upheld the call.

For the second consecutive night, the Red Sox and Rays were enmeshed in a game that would come down to either a final swing or a final out.

Whitlock retired the Rays in order in the top of the ninth, this time setting down Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Díaz, and Meadows. Christian Vázquez — Boston’s walk-off hero in Game 3 — then led off the bottom the ninth.

This time it wasn’t a blast that lifted the Red Sox to victory. Instead, it was a Vázquez bleeder though the 5-6 hole, a sacrifice bunt, an infield single that advanced pinch-runner Danny Santana to third, and a sacrifice fly to just-deep-enough left by Enrique Hernández. In an all-too-rare display of small-ball, the Red Sox — a team that didn’t earn a Wild Card berth until the final day of the regular season — had punched their ticket to the ALCS. The winner of the Houston Astros-Chicago White Sox series awaits.

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