BOSTON — The home run is no longer carving out October.
The Red Sox have used the long ball as daggers in these playoffs (as though they can actually choose when they hit them). Think Jackie Bradley Jr. in the ALCS. Or Eduardo Nunez, of all people, on Tuesday night in the World Series. His pinch-hit appearance produced his first career pinch-hit homer, a liner into the Monster seats giving the Sox some distance in an 8-4 victory. He has two bad legs, and now one gigantic long ball in Sox lore.
The Sox have had marvelous success with runners in scoring position in October, a .365/.491/.647 line now. They were 4-for-12 on Tuesday in those situations, including that Nunez three-run homer.
It could be argued the Sox are actually winning in spite of a lack of power, that because their hits have been so timely — five of their 10 home runs overall, by the way, have come with runners in scoring position — they’re surviving.
It would be hard to explain the Red Sox as anything but thriving, however, as they put themselves three wins away from a title. And their success marks a distinct change in the postseason formula that was seen a year ago.
In 2017, the world champion Astros hit 27 home runs in 18 games. The Dodgers hit 23 in 15 games last year.
Through 10 postseason contests for the Sox this year, they’re up to 10 long balls. The Dodgers have 14 homers in 12 games. (The Astros finished the playoffs with 14 homers in eight games.)
Like the 2004 and 2007 teams before them, the 2018 Red Sox have the look of a steamroller, a team so convinced, rightly, of its own ability, that their opponent has one foot out the door already.
So it was in the first inning on Tuesday, when the Dodgers made two or three mistakes, depending on your count. There was a missed pop fly down the first base line that David Freese pursued; to a throw home that allowed another runner into scoring position from Yasiel Puig; to a challenge that did not get a call overturned.
The Sox will eat alive other teams that can’t play cleanly. But consider how the Sox approached Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. They were roping singles, first from Mookie Betts, then from Andrew Benintendi, and yet another from J.D. Martinez in the four-hole.
“I wouldn’t tell you if it was something that we had on him,” bench coach Ron Roenicke said. “Just try to get pitches up in the zone. It’s not different than you do against [Dallas] Keuchel when we faced him in the last series. You know how tough he is down in the zone.
"And really you preach that, the guys that are up in the zone, you preach, ‘Hey, you got to get him down, you can’t chase the stuff up here.’ And so it’s not, it’s not like, I mean, I think [hitting coach] Tim Hyers does, I mean, that’s as good as I’ve seen at breaking down pitchers. … And giving those hitters, whether it’s numbers or just a visual of what this guy wants to do. So that certainly is a huge help."
“It's swinging at strikes and good pitches to hit. You look at the numbers, and nobody’s hitting stuff on corners, and they’re not hitting stuff at the top of the zone. So you have to figure out, how do we get to these good pitches?"
The Sox offense hasn’t worked as kind of traditionally envisioned. Martinez, for example, struck out with the bases loaded and none out on Tuesday. The biggest hitters have yet to really take over in dominant fashion. Andrew Benintendi’s four hits on Tuesday, though, put him in elite company, as one of just three players in Sox history to have four knocks in a Fall Classic game. One was a double, the rest were singles.
“He's a good hitter,” Cora said. “He hangs in there with lefties. I know the numbers don’t back that up, but we do feel that he's a good hitter against them. When he's using the whole field, he becomes very dangerous. I know he hasn't driven the ball in a while, he hasn't hit homers in a while, but I like that guy tonight, just to hit the ball all over the place, put pressure on the defense and running the bases and playing good defense.”
That’s been the Sox' game this October.
A lot is similar to a year ago overall. The starting pitchers are still leaving early. The bullpens still mean a lot. But the parade of hits now has turned to singles, rather than home runs.
The Sox have a .309 average on balls in play, which is second-most behind the Brewers’ .318 this October. There’s no catch-all statistic, considering the Sox are hitting .261 and knocked out the Astros, who hit .260.
The closest, though, is the whopping 53 RBIs with runners in scoring position on 31 hits through 112 plate appearances. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have 17 hits with runners in scoring position in 113 plate appearances, good for a .187/.321/.319 line. They have four home runs and 30 RBIs.
In the live-ball era, only three others with at least 60 at-bats with runners in scoring position in the postseason have had a higher average than this year’s Sox: the 2007 Red Sox, at .368; the 1960 Yankees, at .375; and the 1970 Orioles, at .378.
Of that trio, two of the three won it all. The 1960 Yanks fell on a famous home run, you may recall.
Meanwhile, if the Sox feel a little like the 2007 team that walloped the Rockies — well, there's reason for that.
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