Red Sox Rout Rays Behind Houck, Hernández and Martinez

This could have been Tampa Bay’s night. In an alternate, presumably domed and cat-walked universe, starter Shane Baz shakes off a tough start, and builds on his escape from a first-inning jam. The Rays, invigorated by their five-run rally off of Chris Sale in the bottom of the first, pour it on against Boston’s beleaguered bullpen.

It didn’t go that way. Jordan Luplow’s go-ahead grand slam off of Sale was just about the last highlight of the night for Tampa, as Boston outscored the division-winners 13-1 the rest of the way. Boston’s offensive explosion pulled the Red Sox back from the brink of a 2-0 series deficit, and ensured that ace Nathan Eovaldi gets to start in front of the Fenway faithful with a chance to take the lead in the ALDS. And while Boston’s offense did the heavy lifting, the key to the game may have come all the way back in the second inning, when Alex Cora pulled Sale in favor of Tanner Houck.

For my money, Houck is the most compelling player in the series. He pitched brilliantly down the stretch, notching a 2.52 FIP over 69 innings split between the bullpen and the rotation, and capped his season off with five perfect innings in a start last weekend against Washington. For the year, he struck out more than 30% of hitters while also generating more grounders than flies. Beyond the numbers, he’s just a real bastard to face. His low slot and deadly, sweeping slider draw inevitable comparisons to Sale, and he has one of the most devastating sinkers in the game.

And yet, he entered the series as a wild card. It’s less that the Red Sox don’t know what they have in Houck than a case where his optimal deployment isn’t easy to determine. Should he start? Surely that was a tempting idea for Boston, given the numbers listed above. But on the few occasions Houck worked deep into games this year, the righty folded his third time through the order. For the Red Sox, the possibility was scary enough to push the rookie into relief, presumably in some sort of high-leverage role.

It thus felt like a bit of a waste when Cora brought Houck in for the second inning of a 5-2 game. Boston’s win expectancy slipped to about 17% after the top of the frame, and given the likely task ahead of him, it seemed like the Red Sox were poised to commit the twin sins of using their X-factor in a low leverage spot while also burning him for Monday’s potential Game 4.

This is October, though, and managers can’t afford to wait for a Game 4 that may never come. In a short series where you’re already in the hole, you can’t play Goldilocks with the ace up your sleeve. Down three and smelling a bullpen game from the Rays, Cora decided to fight for the game in front of him, bringing in Houck and praying the offense would get going.

The plan worked. Houck spun five innings of two-hit ball, striking out five and allowing only one run, a solo shot from Ji-Man Choi that just crawled over the wall. He retired the first 11 hitters that he faced, and notched a 34% CSW rate for the outing. He did all this in just 61 pitches, five mostly tidy frames that stood in stark contrast to the pummeling Tampa’s pitchers were taking in the top half of the innings.

After a quiet second, Boston’s offense heated up in the third. Kevin Kiermaier’s spectacular catch on a deep drive from Rafael Devers helped avert major damage, as the next two Red Sox went deep. Xander Bogaerts smoked a long drive to left to chase Baz, and Alex Verdugo greeted Collin McHugh with a big fly to right to pull the Beaneaters within one.

Another two-homer frame put Boston over the top. In the fifth, Kiké Hernández tied the contest with a solo shot, and after walking Devers, Kevin Cash pulled McHugh. In a long list of things that went wrong tonight for Tampa, McHugh’s outing may well head the list. With a 1.55 ERA and 2.12 FIP in a tricky multi-inning role, the right-hander had been a stalwart for the Rays in 2021. But after allowing only three homers all year, he coughed up two in 1.2 innings in the biggest outing of his season.

Subsequent relievers didn’t fare much better. Slider monster Matt Wisler didn’t have his best stuff and paid dearly for it. In relief of McHugh, he allowed a hard single to Bogaerts, got an out on a deep line drive, and then saw one of his ubiquitous benders run smack into J.D. Martinez’s barrel, which resulted in a back-breaking three-run homer:

Alongside, the Rays were held in check. They did peel a run back on Choi’s homer, but just as it looked like Houck was tiring, he got some help from his defense — Alex Verdugo’s stretching catch in particular:

On and on the Red Sox barrage continued. Three singles and a run in the seventh. A third double from Hernández and a two-run blast from Devers in the eighth. In the ninth, Martinez clobbered a double for his fourth hit of the night, which didn’t even lead the team, as Hernández singled for his fifth knock later in the frame. All told, the Bostonians rolled up 14 runs on 20 hits, including five dingers. If anything, that undersells how thoroughly Boston punished the baseball, as Hernández’s second double hit the top of the wall in left center and Bobby Dalbec nearly punctured the roof with a deep drive in the ninth that crept just foul.

The win highlights Boston’s path forward this postseason. Eovaldi was one of the league’s best pitchers this year, and both Houck and Sale are dangerous on their good days, but the bullpen is thin and realistically Boston will need to win a few dingerfests. That’s not the traditional path through the pumpkin patch, but the Red Sox may just have the offense to pull this off. They finished second in the league in slugging and sixth in wRC+ this season, and those numbers may belie Boston’s true talent.

Six of the first seven hitters in the lineup hit 20 or more home runs. Dalbec, who hit 25 and posted a 107 wRC+, started on the bench. On days Kevin Plawecki starts, Cora can run out nine 100 wRC+ hitters in his starting lineup. They weren’t rewarded for it, but Boston smacked the ball around in Game 1, and even with that shutout they’ve scored 20 runs in three playoff games.

The series now hinges on Game 3, and the question Tampa must answer is whether their club’s mix-and-match pitching staff has what it takes to contain the Red Sox. With Shane McClanahan likely unavailable until Game 5 and relief ace McHugh licking his wounds from Game 2, the Rays look vulnerable. Tampa Bay is rightly lauded for their ability to put their personnel in a position to exceed; they’re the organizational embodiment of “more than the sum of its parts.” Against Boston though, there’s nowhere to hide, no soft parts of the lineup, no way to avoid innings where good-but-not-great relievers will need to get big outs against the heart of the sport’s most daunting order. Were they up 2-0, they’d be clear favorites. As is, the momentum shift in the middle innings of tonight’s game may have swung more than just a single ballgame.





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Uncle Herniation
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Uncle Herniation

Rout

Nasty Nate
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Nasty Nate

also Dude, beaneaters is not the preferred nomenclature

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The Red Sox Route Rays is mostly I-95.