BOSTON -- What happens when the stars fade? Is it the fault of the stars, or a plan that was too committed to them?
On the day the Red Sox clinched the American League East, Mookie Betts crushed a home run to left field, a towering shot off Aroldis Chapman that put both the game and the division on ice.
Afterward, standing in a puddle of champagne, Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski referenced star power.
“Well, it's fun to watch good players play,” Dombrowski said in September at Yankee Stadium. “And I mean, you have a lot of good players when you win the number of games that we have done. But you're also in a position where sometimes, your stars step up, and you can see like a guy like Mookie stepping up today. A lot of other people contributed, but when it came down to the nitty gritty, he stepped up and had a big game for us. To win championships there's a lot that's involved, but a lot of times you'll find out that those star players make a difference.”
EVAN DRELLICH'S THREE STRIKES
Stars are what Dombrowski has assembled in Boston. From Chris Sale to Craig Kimbrel to J.D. Martinez, the pursuits have been centered on brand names. The rewards have, mostly, lived up to brand reputation. Certainly in the regular season.
But as baseball has evolved drastically in recent years, depth has become more valuable. Incredibly valuable. The formula has changed. If scouting reports are as precise as the high-90s fastballs so many playoff relievers throw, then the safest bet -- the best bet, the bet that maximizes the return on investment -- is probably on a lineup and pitching staff that is relentless, on an endless stream of talent, rather than a few big names mixed with obvious, avoidable questions.
Maybe Alex Cora overreacted when he was ejected after the bottom of the fifth inning on Saturday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, after Andrew Benintendi was rung up on a questionable pitch.
“You can't argue balls and strikes,” Cora said. “And I did. It's kind of like embarrassing that it happens in the playoffs. That wasn't cool watching the game in the clubhouse. I got a job to do and manage the team in the dugout.”
Maybe Craig Kimbrel should have pitched the ninth inning with the Sox down just one run, before a pair of home runs off Brandon Workman made it 7-2, the final score in a Sox loss to the Astros.
“We were thinking Rick [Porcello] and Work,” Cora said. “Work, if he executes pitches, we can get away with it because of the breaking ball and the fastball out. He didn't execute his pitches and they made him pay.”
But that’s where the Red Sox stand against the defending champions: if their stars do not perform, they are limited. Gambling. Trying to “get away with it,” as Cora put it.
They put a first baseman on the roster in Mitch Moreland whose hamstring is in such bad shape that they'd rather have Christian Vazquez run the bases. (Save the Vazquez-is-a-good-base-runner defense.) What other choice did the Sox have? Tzu-Wei Lin isn't the answer to the parade of aces in the Astros rotation.
Speaking of aces: Chris Sale was not Chris Sale on Saturday, in a four-inning start where his velocity may have creeped up at the end, but plenty of questions nonetheless lingered.
"You look at his velo, you could tell he was down a little bit, but he still found ways to get outs and grind through there,” Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said. “I don't know if he's down on his pitching ability, but for me, from the left side, it's a lot easier when he's only throwing 92-93 [mph] instead of 97. He's not a comfortable at-bat, he's finding ways to get outs, but anytime he's not at 100 percent you've feel like you've got an advantage over him.”
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Kimbrel was not used at all, and after his performance in Game 4 of the ALDS, it’s not like he’s instilled a ton of confidence lately anyway.
Betts has a .239 average in a dozen career postseason games, without a home run. He’s 4-for-20 this year.
Where's everybody else? The Sox got through the ALDS without Betts at his best, without Kimbrel at his best. Against a team like the Astros -- fewer flaws than the Yankees, a better run differential -- that's probably not going to work.
Five of Houston's seven runs scored after a walk. The Sox have had a walks problem all year, particularly in relief. Good teams capitalize. Star teams. Not just star players.
The former is usually built on more than just the latter. In modern-day baseball, anyway.