Red Sox

Drellich: Chris Sale's biggest start of the season is about his hitters, not him

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Drellich: Chris Sale's biggest start of the season is about his hitters, not him

NEW YORK — Chris Sale will be making his biggest start since joining the Red Sox on Sunday, in the final scheduled game between the Yanks and Sox this season.

The spotlight will shine brighter on the hitters behind him.

Eduardo Nunez made his Red Sox debut on July 28. From that day through Saturday’s 5-1 Red Sox loss to the Yanks, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez are hitting a combined .225.

The Red Sox cannot continue to receive that level of production and expect good results. What’s really amazing is how well the team has played in spite of such numbers, in spite of the absences of key injured players.

MORE: Robby Scott, one year into the big leagues: 'Nothing’s going to stop me'

The Sox are 21-12 since Nunez arrived, with the third-best win percentage in baseball. (Some Saturday games were still underway at the time this was written.) Their 3.86 ERA was the eighth best in the majors.

The pitching’s excellence has been consistent most of the year. The questionable nature of the lineup has been as well. 

“Just kind of going along with the ride,” Betts said Saturday. “Just doing what I can to help the team win that’s all I’m focused on.”

Sox manager John Farrell said he hasn’t thought about a couple down days for Betts a la Bogaerts, namely because of how important Betts is even when not hitting well.

But Betts’ .313 slugging percentage since July 28, a 32-game stretch for him, is worse than all but 10 qualified players. 

Ramirez on Saturday had loud outs and has looked better of late. But the offense that powered the Sox in August could wind up looking like an outlier rather than a correction.

Rafael Devers’ growing pains have been realized, both at the plate and in the field. There’s no surprise there, because he’s a 20-year-old rookie.

Mitch Moreland didn’t help Devers on a throw to first base Saturday that was wide, yet not so wide that it needed to skip away. 

Devers had only himself to blame when he later took too long on a routine grounder from Brett Gardner, creating an infield hit.

“Yeah, he took his time,” manager John Farrell said. “Obviously, too much time. But I thought he was in good shape on the [wide] throw against [Gary] Sanchez and pulled it wide a little bit, and then took his time setting his feet against Gardner, and it cost him. These are key learning opportunities, learning moments, for him.”

Pennant races are an easier time to learn when there are others to lean on.

Nunez has eight home runs? How the heck did that happen? The surprise performances have come from all corners.

It’s very hard to be convinced they’ll continue.

Reality sets in. There’s a mean, a true ability and performance level, that typically shines through by the end of a season. That goes for both disappointing and bust-out performances, so you can find positivity in that thinking as well.

Bogaerts has been hurt, with a nagging right hand. Betts’ knee gave a scare in Cleveland, but there’s been no sense it’s holding him back at the plate.

Andrew Benintendi’s taken a step forward, hitting .322 since July 28. Bradley, fresh off the DL, has a .352 OBP in that stretch, so he has contributed as well.

But without Betts and Bogaerts close to form, the Red Sox offense is in an uncomfortable place. Others have picked up the slack, the pitchers included. But it’s a certain brand of optimism — more commonly called naivete — to think the Sox can find continued success with this formula.

August is gone. Now to find out if the offense is as well.

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NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

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NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

CHICAGO -- Javier Baez sensed he was ready to bust out of his slump and give the Chicago Cubs the lift they needed.

As breakthroughs go, this was a big one. Just in time to keep the season going for the defending champs.

Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

"We have to be much more offensive," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's got to start happening tomorrow. We're going to do this. Going to pull this off, we have to become more offensive tomorrow."

Baez finally got going with a pair of solo drives .

Jake Arrieta pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning to help the Cubs close their deficit to 3-1. Maddon got ejected for the second time in this series in the eighth, and a packed Wrigley Field crowd watched Davis get Cody Bellinger to ground into a game-ending double play.

Maddon was heavily criticized for not using Davis during a 4-1 loss in Game 2. This time, the Cubs closer threw 48 pitches to finish the job.

Willson Contreras also homered for the Cubs. Bellinger and Justin Turner connected for the Dodgers, who had won a team-record six straight playoff games.

Game 5 is Thursday, with Jose Quintana pitching for Chicago against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

"They're the world champs, and you know they're going to fight to the end," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "So today, they did. We got beat today."

Baez hit solo drives in the second and fifth after going hitless in his first 20 playoff at-bats. He had been watching videos and felt his timing was starting to come back in recent trips to the plate.

"I just need to take a step back and see what's going on," he said.

Contreras added a long homer against Alex Wood.

Davis entered with a 3-1 lead in the eighth. He gave up a leadoff homer to Turner, who went 2 for 2 and drew two walks.

Maddon became incensed that a swinging strike three against Curtis Granderson was ruled a foul after the umpires discussed the play. Maddon got tossed, and Granderson struck out swinging at the next pitch.

And after walking Yasmani Grandal to put runners on first and second, Davis struck out Chase Utley , who is hitless in his last 24 postseason at-bats.

All seven of Chicago's runs in this series have come on homers. And long drives in the second by Contreras and Baez made it 2-0.

"Great to have this win, because if not we were going home tomorrow," Baez said. "But I feel like we're still not on track as a team. But I think if we get back on track, everybody as a team, we're going to be the best again."

Contreras' 491-foot homer banged off the left-field videoboard and Baez sent a towering drive out to left.

Bellinger cut it to 2-1 with his drive to right in the third. But Baez got the lead back up to two with a shot to the left-field bleachers in the fifth, the raucous crowd chanting "Javy! Javy!" for the flashy young star who was co-MVP of the NLCS last year.

No Cubs player had hit two in a playoff game since Alex Gonzalez went deep twice in Game 2 of the 2003 NLCS against Miami.

Arrieta exited with runners on first and second in the seventh after walking Chris Taylor on a 3-2 pitch. He tipped his hat as fans gave him a standing ovation, a fitting show of appreciation for a pitcher with an expiring contract.

"Hopefully, it's not a goodbye, it's a thank you, obviously," Arrieta said. "I still intend to have another start in this ballpark. If that's where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there."

Arrieta turns 32 in March and figures to land a huge deal in free agency. The trade that brought him from Baltimore helped fuel Chicago's rise, with the right-hander capturing the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and contributing to last year's drought-busting championship run.

Limited by a right hamstring injury in the final month of the season, he threw 111 pitches. Brian Duensing retired Bellinger on a fly to end the seventh.

Turner made it a one-run game with his homer off the left-field videoboard against Davis in the eighth.

A career-high 16-game winner, Wood gave up three runs and four hits in 42/3 innings.

"The only frustrating thing is we fell a run short," Turner said. "We played a great game, they played a great game. They just hit one more ball over the fence than we did."

FINISHING UP

Maddon said Davis would not be available on Thursday.

"So other guys got to do it," Maddon said. "We have to be much more offensive. It's got to start happening tomorrow. We're going to do this. Going to pull this off, we have to become more offensive tomorrow."

QUOTABLE

Chicago's Kyle Schwarber on all the Cubs' runs coming on homers in the series: "That's fine. A run's a run, anyway you can get them in. Obviously, we want to manufacture some runs, but we won a ballgame 3-2 hitting homers; I'll take that, too."

UP NEXT

Dodgers: The Dodgers turn to Kershaw to try to wrap up the series. The three-time NL Cy Young winner went five innings in Game 1, allowing two runs, and has a 4.76 ERA in two postseason starts this year.

Cubs: Quintana pitched five innings of two-hit ball in Game 1, one day after his wife, Michel, was taken off the team plane in Albuquerque with a medical ailment.

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ALCS: Tanaka, Yankees top Keuchel, Astros 5-0 for 3-2 lead

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ALCS: Tanaka, Yankees top Keuchel, Astros 5-0 for 3-2 lead

NEW YORK -- This time, it was Masahiro Tanaka who was untouchable on the mound.

And when the New York Yankees sent Houston ace Dallas Keuchel to an early exit, their rollicking crowd let loose with a cathartic roar that must have boomed all over the Bronx.

"New York is no joke," Keuchel said afterward.

One more big win, and these Yankees are World Series-bound.

Tanaka pitched seven innings of three-hit ball and New York finally solved a longtime nemesis at just the right moment, beating Keuchel and the Astros 5-0 on Wednesday for a 3-2 lead in the AL Championship Series.

"What a performance," Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said about Tanaka. "Just gutsy."

Gary Sanchez hit an RBI single off Keuchel and later homered to help the wild-card Yankees win for the third straight day at home, moving them within one victory of their first pennant since 2009 and record 41st overall.

The teams head back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday night, when Justin Verlander and the reeling Astros will try to regain their footing following an off day and force a decisive Game 7. Luis Severino is scheduled to start for New York.

To take the series, the Yankees knew they needed to win at least one game started by Keuchel or Verlander, both Cy Young Award winners. Now they've done that - and they don't want to let Houston back up.

"Don't wake that sleeping dog. So we've got to just keep on rolling," Frazier said. "They're going to be ready to go. We know that."

Houston arrived up two games to none and appeared to be closing in on its second World Series appearance. But the Astros, like defending AL champion Cleveland before them, have been unable to put away these poised Yankees, who improved to 6-0 at home this postseason in front of their cheering, chanting fans.

New York has won 19 of its past 22 games at Yankee Stadium.

"It's been unbelievable. I haven't seen anything like it in Major League Baseball," veteran Chase Headley said. "Reminds me of college football games. They're going crazy the entire game. It's a huge advantage for us."

Aaron JudgeGreg Bird and Didi Gregorius also delivered big hits as New York chased Keuchel in the fifth and handed him his first postseason loss.

Keuchel had been Yankees kryptonite, entering 6-2 with a 1.09 ERA in eight career starts against New York - including a pair of scoreless outings in playoff wins.

Both of those came at the expense of Tanaka, who lost 3-0 to Keuchel in the 2015 AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium and 2-1 in Game 1 of this series. The ace lefty with the long, bushy beard entered 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 26 2/3 postseason innings overall.

But this night belonged to Tanaka and the Baby Bombers.

New York finally broke through against Keuchel with two outs in the second, when Starlin Castro doubled and scored on Greg Bird's sharp single. The sellout crowd of 49,647 almost sounded surprised by the hit - big enough for Bird to flash both thumbs down, doubling up on the Yankees' playful sign to each other for clutch swings.

"The most frustrating part is the fact that I didn't pick the guys up and they were looking towards me to kind of saddle up and get this thing back going again," Keuchel said. "That's a talented group over there and 1 through 9 right now the bats have woken up and it's quite a challenge."

In the third, Judge grounded an RBI double just inside the third base line and past a diving Alex BregmanBrett Gardner sped all the way around from first and scored with a headfirst slide.

Bregman's throwing error on an infield single by Headley, who had three hits in the No. 9 spot, aided the Yankees in the fifth. Keuchel walked Judge with two outs before Sanchez lined a run-scoring single into the left-field corner.

Going into that at-bat, Sanchez was 1 for 16 with seven strikeouts in the series - and 0 for 8 with six strikeouts against Keuchel overall.

Gregorius then grounded an RBI single up the middle that grazed the glove of diving second baseman Jose Altuve. That ended the night for Keuchel and gave the Yankees a 4-0 cushion, the most runs he had ever allowed against them.

With the stands pulsating, fans reveled in his slow walk to the dugout as the Yankee Stadium sound system blared Scandal's "Goodbye To You."

"When you play at home, things like this happen and that's why it's so tough to win on the road in the playoffs," Keuchel said. "Yankee Stadium is a tough place to play and it was rockin' these three games, but it's going to be rockin' on Friday for us."

Sanchez hit his third postseason homer off Brad Peacock in the seventh to make it 5-0.

Despite beautiful weather in the Bronx, the Astros didn't take batting practice on the field. If they were hoping that might help their slumping hitters reset, it didn't.

"One swing and we'll be back where we need to be," Bregman said. "We're going home. We've got to fight back."

The highest-scoring team in the majors this season, Houston is batting .147 in the series and Tanaka is a major reason. The normally reserved right-hander from Japan, who can opt out of his $155 million contract this winter, has been at the top of his game in October and showed rare emotion on the mound during this one.

He worked around a leadoff double in the second, when the Yankees - with a stingy Keuchel undoubtedly in mind - successfully played their infield in with Yuli Gurriel on third and one out in a scoreless game.

Tanaka later spun around and shouted in excitement after striking out struggling table-setters George Springer and Josh Reddick with two on to end the fifth.

"I love it. Those are the best guys. To see that, it gets me fired up again," Frazier said. "He's been doing it all postseason. Just dominant, man. You see him out there, he talks to himself, he does all this crazy stuff and the next thing you know the ball just disappears on batters."

Keeping the ball down with his slider and splitter, Tanaka struck out eight and walked one. Tommy Kahnle tossed two innings to finish the four-hitter.

Tanaka also beat the Indians 1-0 in the Division Series to save the Yankees' season when they were down 0-2 in that best-of-five playoff. After going 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA during an inconsistent season, he has a 0.90 ERA in three playoff starts.

"I feel like I'm just keeping it really simple," Tanaka said through a translator. "You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank."

MISTER OCTOBER

Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of Reggie Jackson's three-homer game at old Yankee Stadium in the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

COMING UP EMPTY

The lowest team batting average in league championship series history was .155 for Minnesota during a three-game sweep by Baltimore in 1969.

UP NEXT

Astros: Verlander is 8-0 in eight outings for Houston since agreeing to a trade from Detroit, just minutes before the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility. The 2011 AL MVP is 3-0 with a 2.04 ERA in these playoffs, including a series-clinching victory in relief during the Division Series against Boston and his five-hitter with 13 strikeouts to beat the Yankees on a season-high 124 pitches in Game 2. The right-hander is 10-5 with a 3.18 ERA in his postseason career.

Yankees: Severino gave up one run and two hits over four innings in Game 2 but was pulled as a precaution after only 62 pitches because manager Joe Girardi was concerned about the 23-year-old righty pitching hurt, saying he didn't look comfortable in his mechanics. By now, the Yankees are confident he's fine.

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