BOSTON — Instead of Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino and Johnny Damon, it was Dustin Pedroia, Christian Vasquez and Ryan LaMarre.
Zach Duke’s miraculous escape of a bases loaded, nobody-out jam — which was reminiscent of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s landmark relief appearance here in Game 3 of the 2005 American League Division Series — set up Jose Abreu’s game-winning two-run double to earn the White Sox a 3-1 win over the Boston Red Sox Monday night at Fenway Park.
When Duke entered the game — which came after Zach Putnam walked the bases loaded to begin the ninth — the Red Sox had a 93.8 percent chance of winning, according to FanGraphs’ win expectancy.
“It was a little bit stressful,” Duke said. “But those are the moments we live for as players. To be able to be handed the ball in that situation and get the job done, that’s what we live for.”
Dustin Pedroia was the first challenger against Duke, with the former MVP being called upon to pinch hit for left-handed third baseman Travis Shaw. After getting strike one with a fastball out over the plate, Duke pounded Pedroia inside with his low-80s slider and mid-70s curveball. He missed with one, but Pedroia pulled three breaking balls foul — which was exactly the plan.
With Pedroia having to protect a two-strike count against that barrage of inside breaking balls, Duke went back to his fastball. He missed low and away with his first one, then blew Pedroia away with No. 2 for the first out.
“He made some really good pitches with his breaking ball in to him where if he was going to make solid contact it was going to go foul, like he did a couple of times,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Zach has those two different types of breaking balls where it can be a little harder and slower, and when you’re seeing as many as Pedroia did, the two fastballs you could tell he was late on protecting against the breaking ball as well. Good sequence on his part.”
Next up was light-hitting catcher Christian Vasquez, with the Red Sox win expectancy still at a healthy 83.6 percent. Duke didn’t throw a single pitch in the strike zone during this at-bat, with Vasquez letting two balls go but chasing two out of the zone for foul balls. The 2-2 offering was a 77 mile per hour curveball low and away, which Vasquez softly chopped up the middle.
Tyler Saladino — who was brought on as a fifth infielder after Putnam loaded the bases — was standing right there to field it, but the usually sure-handed infielder fired low toward home plate. Avila made an outstanding play, keeping his right foot on the base while successfully cradling the ball in his glove. If he had bobbled it or not fielded it cleanly, it would’ve been game over.
“That was an unreal play,” Duke said. “I don’t know how he caught that ball. I had a perfect view of it. As soon as it left Sally’s hand, I was going, ‘Nooooo,’ but then he came up with it.
“And I said from that point on I’m going to get this next guy.”
The next guy was pinch hitter Ryan LaMarre, and Duke followed through on his personal prediction (the Red Sox win expectancy dropped to 66 percent after Vasquez’s groundout). This was a dominant at-bat from Duke — LaMarre fouled off a first-pitch fastball, then swung at two of three breaking balls low and inside for an inning-ending strikeout.
Duke let out two primal screams as he strutted off the mound.
“You bring him in that situation and you’re hoping for the best,” manager Robin Ventura said.
What Duke did was exactly that best-case scenario, however unlikely it was. The White Sox were 90 feet away from losing their third game in four days in walk-off fashion only a few hours after general manager Rick Hahn fielded questions about Ventura’s job status. For a team that’s been stuck in a bad way for about a month and a half, Duke’s spectacular escape was a much-needed reversal of fortune.
Whether the ninth inning — and Jose Abreu’s game-winning, two-run double in the 10th — result in the White Sox turning things around for good after losing 26 of their previous 36 games heading into Boston remains to be seen. But thanks to Zach “Duque” (he had a laugh at all those plays on his and Hernandez’s name that were all over social media), the White Sox were able to celebrate instead of wallow on Monday night.
“For us, it’s hard to win one game, sometimes,” Ventura said. “It took a game a game as odd as this one to do it and it shows something about the toughness of the guys we have in here.”