Just 9 days ago, the Boston Red Sox were playing their final game of the regular season unsure of whether they would be in the postseason picture. They were guaranteed at least a tie-breaker game to determine who made the AL Wild Card game, but everything was up in the air and it appeared as if this just wasn’t their year to make a deep run. A victory in game 162 sent the Red Sox into the postseason for the first time in a few years and at the time, that alone felt like it was an accomplishment worth celebrating. A little over a week later and the Boston Red Sox are headed to the ALCS on Friday.
How did the Red Sox even get to this point? Predictions were all around 80 wins for this team with the postseason not really in the picture and now they will be 1 of just 4 teams still playing baseball into October. It took guts, instinct, and a bit of luck, but the Red Sox are 4 wins away from making the World Series when no one gave them a shot before the season. Let’s look at the top 5 People responsible for this improbable run.
There are plenty of fans who devalue coaching when a team has success, but there is no denying the impact Alex Cora has had on the 2021 Red Sox. Not every decision he makes works, but they are all driven by analytics and instinct and the vast majority are correct in retrospect. After Game 4 of the ALDS, he is now 4-0 in elimination games in the postseason and 15-4 overall as a manager in the postseason (7-2 at home). That’s not a coincidence. He’s willing to make the aggressive moves early and often if he thinks, and the numbers show, an advantage. Cora will pull a starter in the 2nd inning or make a substitution in the first half of the game, if it could give his team and advantage or he sees something he doesn’t like. He doesn’t shy away from the decisions when the don’t work, he sticks to the process and his plan.
There was no more prime example of his impact than the 2021 ALDS. He was forced to pull his starters after 1 2/3 and 1 inning in the first two games of the series, and used a combined 10 relievers in those games in order to split and come back to Boston with a tied series, which was a triumph. He leaned on rookie Tanner Houck and long-reliever/starter Nick Pivetta in crucial spots and his confidence in them drove them to perform at their best. He pulled pitchers earlier than the couch-coaches would have liked, and for the most part, he was right. I don’t think I can overstate Cora’s impact in the postseason, especially this year.
2. Nicholas Juan Carlo Pivetta
Without a doubt, Nick Pivetta is my new favorite Canadian. His performance in the ALDS is nothing less than heroic and he single-handedly saved the Red Sox in game 3. In game 1, Pivetta was tapped in the 3rd inning to eat innings and he did just that. He went 4 2/3 and allowed 3 runs on 4 hits with 4 Ks, which was just what the Sox needed. The offense didn’t score, so they were going to lose no matter what, but Pivetta saved Cora from having to use everyone out of the bullpen. Thanks to that performance, Cora only needed to use Garrett Richards for 1/3 inning, Josh Taylor for 1/3 inning, and Adam Ottavino for 1 inning, which was critical given the pitching demand in every other game.
Then, just 3 days after throwing 73 pitches in relief, Nick Pivetta had a Nate Eovaldi-type extra innings performance that led to the series turning point. As the 7th pitcher out of the bullpen, Pivetta came into a 4-4 game in the top of the 10th in game 3, looking to just hold the tie until the Red Sox could find some postseason magic, and boy did he. He ended up going 4 innings, allowed just 3 hits and 0 runs, while striking out 7. Holding the game through the bottom of the 13th allowed Christian Vazquez to be the hero and walk-off with a massive win. Pivetta was mentally and physically dominant, despite throwing 140 pitches over 3 days, and his performance fired up his teammates. The Red Sox need him to carry the momentum into the ALCS, where he is likely to move back into his familiar starter role.
3. Chaim Bloom
You could argue that Chaim Bloom deserves to be even higher than #3 and isn’t getting nearly enough credit for this Red Sox run. He made several under-the-radar moves in the offseason that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but have really paid dividends. Just taking a glance at his moves, several of them ended up on this very top 5 list. Bloom’s biggest offensive signings Kike Hernandez and Hunter Renfroe have had a massive impact on this team’s success to the tune of 51 HRs and 156 RBIs and have combined for 16 hits and 2 HRs in 5 postseason games this year. If you add in the pitching moves, claiming of Garrett Whitlock and trading for Adam Ottavino, who both have been crucial to getting the team this far. If you add in the Nick Pivetta trade in August 2020, that’s an impressive record.
Maybe even more critically was Bloom’s trade deadline signings in 2021. Most people, myself included, questioned the inactivity at the deadline. The notable moves Bloom made were to bring in Kyle Schwarber and Hansel Robles. I’ll include Jose Iglesias in this group even though he claimed him off waivers after the deadline. Schwarber has been a steady and important piece for the Red Sox, getting Bobby Dalbec back on track, drawing walks, and hitting bombs. In 41 regular season games, Schwarber hit .291 with 7 HRs and 33 BBs, including some big walks and hits as the Red Sox pushed for the postseason. Until game 4 of the ALDS, Robles hadn’t allowed an earned run in 17 appearances, including 2 innings in the postseason, a surprising level of success for someone who wasn’t highly regarded. The Iglesias signing is a big reason the Red Sox even made the postseason, as he hit .356 in 23 games since coming to Boston as Christian Arroyo was battling COVID and unable to play.
After letting Jackie Bradley Jr. go and trading Andrew Benintendi, it was doom and gloom in Boston, but Bloom managed to improve the roster and depth, somehow making this a better team without those guys. Bloom deserves a ton of credit for putting the right guys on the roster to make a postseason run.
4. Garrett Whitlock
There is no more important piece of the bullpen or better story on the Red Sox than Garrett Whitlock. After being drafted by the New York Yankees in 2017 in the 18th round, the Alabama-Birmingham product moved to A ball in 2018 and moved up to AA by the end of the season and started 2019 in AA. In 14 starts, he had a 3.07 ERA and 57 Ks until disaster struck and he underwent Tommy John surgery in July that would end his 2019 campaign and because of his recovery and the global pandemic that shut down minor league baseball, all of his 2020 season. In December of 2020, the annual rule-5 draft took place and thanks to Bloom’s acumen, the Red Sox selected Whitlock in the 4th round. Any player not on a 40-man roster can be drafted, but they are immediately added to the selector’s 40 man roster which is not usually a spot for many AA players.
Whitlock was drafted and added to the Red Sox 40-man roster and no one even noticed. He had missed the previous season and a half and hadn’t risen above AA yet in the Yankees system. By any angle, it seemed like Whitlock was a guy you stash at AAA and hope he pans out to be something in the future and if not, you release him to open up a 40-man roster spot. After impressing in Spring Training, the Red Sox had no choice but to give him a major-league roster spot for opening day and they never looked back. Whitlock had a spectacular rookie season, pitching 73.1 innings in 46 appearances and ending the regular season with a 1.96 ERA with 81 Ks and an 8-4 record. He emerged as high-leverage reliever as the year progressed and after allowing a solo HR in the AL Wild Card game, didn’t allow a hit against the Rays in 3.1 innings over 2 appearances. This is not the last we will see of Whitlock in a critical late-game situation this postseason.
5. Kike “Mr. Postseason” Hernandez
All year long, Kike Hernandez has been a great player for the Red Sox. He had a career year and accumulated 127 hits in 134 games this season, including 20 HRs (1 shy of his career high) and 60 RBIs (4 shy of his career high). He primarily spent time at 2B and CF this year, with several games at SS mixed in and provided Alex Cora with flexibility and a top-of-the-lineup bat. While Kike is not known as a big hitter, he knows how to get himself in good positions and not try to do too much in the batters box, but that’s not why he’s on this list. His experience and postseason performance is why he’s #5 on this list.
Coming into the 2021 season, Hernandez had a whopping 58 games of postseason experience at the age of 30 (less than 2 months since turning 30). That’s no doubt one reason he was signed and that certainly paid dividends thus far. Through 5 postseason games, Kike has a .435 average with 10 hits and 2 HRs, including 5 of those hits in game 2 of the ALDS alone. Looking ahead to the ALCS, the Red Sox will need continued production out of Kike in the 2-hole, because it lengthens the lineup and makes the offense even scarier and more difficult to pitch against. With the on-base machine of Schwarber leading off followed by Kike 2nd, if they get on base, the next 5 bats in the lineup can absolutely crush the ball (Devers, Bogaerts, Martinez, Verdugo and Renfroe) and they can get to a starting pitcher and hang a crooked number in a hurry.
Honorable Mention: Tanner Houck
You know it’s been an incredible run when a guy like Tanner Houck doesn’t make the top 5. Houck has been absolutely crucial to the Red Sox down the stretch and has been dominant as a long-man out of the bullpen this postseason. He’ll likely play a key role of the Red Sox are to upset the Astros in the ALCS. For more on Houck, read here.
There are obviously a ton of reasons why the Red Sox are playing the Houston Astros on Friday in the ALCS and these were just a handful of the people that made that possible. There are still a ton of storylines to write in the 2021 postseason and we’ll see how the wind blows when things get underway on Friday.