With one gutty 13-inning performance, one unstoppable run by its most indispensable player and a fortuitous bounce only ancient Fenway Park could provide, the Boston Red Sox are on the verge of doing what looked impossible just three days ago.
They can render moot the 100 carefully crafted victories the Tampa Bay Rays produced this season.
In a rollicking Fenway Park classic, the Red Sox took the fight to the Rays on Sunday, withstood their patented late-inning haymaker and emerged with control of this American League Division Series when Christian Vazquez launched a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th inning for a 6-4, Game 3 victory.
Vazquez’s blast off Rays reliever Luis Patiño gives Boston a 2-1 series advantage and a shot to close out the Rays on Monday at Fenway. A Rays win in Game 4 would force a decisive Game 5 at Tropicana Field Wednesday.
In a game that nudged several players into the hero’s role, Boston right-hander Nick Pivetta kept the Red Sox alive with four innings of shutout relief, striking out seven.
Yet, the Rays will never forget how fickle Fenway kept them off the scoreboard in the top of the 13th.
With Yandy Diaz running on the pitch, Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier stung a ball to the warning track in right field. By the time Hunter Renfroe neared the ball, Diaz was just a few feet from third base — and an easy trip home to score the go-ahead run and give Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead.
But the ball spun funkily off the dirt and the wall and richocheted right into and off Renfroe’s hip area.
And hopped harmlessly over the approximatly 4-foot wall.
Ground rule double.
An aghast Kiermaier and Rays manager Kevin Cash had no argument for Major League Baseball’s rulebook, which hews strongly that a ball that deflects off a player and into foul ground is a ground rule double —and just two bases, regardless of whether that occurs 40 or 400 feet from home.
Rule 5.05a (8) stipulates: “Any bounding fair ball is deflected by the fielder into the stands, or over or under a fence on fair or foul territory, in which case the batter and all runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.”
Moments later, Vazquez crushed a Patiño pitch to tilt the ALDS strongly in Boston’s favor.
‘THAT’S A HEARTBREAKER’: Rays stunned by ground rule double call, MLB rulebook after bad bounce, walk-off loss
It’s a sudden reverse of fortune for the Red Sox, in both the immediate and bigger picture. A 5-0 throttling by the Rays in Game 1 surprised few – the Red Sox finished eight games behind Tampa Bay in the regular season and staggered into Tropicana Field after an emotional wild-card vanquishing of the New York Yankees.
Yet these 92-win Red Sox – far less distinguished than their 118-win 2018 edition or the other three World Series titlists this century – showed they at least have the quick-strike firepower of their predecessors.
In a 14-inning stretch spanning the first inning of Game 2 through the fifth inning of Game 3, the Red Sox scored 17 runs and tallied a run in at least every other inning, blitzing Tampa Bay rookie starters Shane Baz and Drew Rasmussen. The Game 3 starter, Rasmussen was chased after allowing three batters to reach in the third inning, including Kiké Hernandez’s RBI single, without recording an out.
That wasn’t even the apex of Hernandez’s historic run, during which he banged out hits in seven consecutive at-bats – that stretch would culminate with a solo home run over the Green Monster off Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks to give Boston a 4-2, fifth-inning lead.
Yet as darkness fell on Fenway and the game grew even later, the Red Sox knew better than to consider themselves in the clear.
Tampa Bay recorded 12 wins this year in which it trailed in the eighth inning or later, and tied this one with laser precision.
It began with a majestic opposite-field shot off the bat of wondrous rookie Wander Franco, a 20-year-old who joined Andruw Jones, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Miguel Cabrera among the top five youngest players to hit a playoff home run.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who’s largely burnished his reputation as a big-game manager this October, would then commit a rare tactical error, leaving in reliever Hansel Robles after an Austin Meadows double, even as de facto closer Garrett Whitlock readied in the bullpen.
Playoff wrecking ball Randy Arozarena made Cora pay, doubling to dead center field to tie the score.
Yet that could not wrest control of this ALDS back from the Red Sox. Not with Pivetta landing his devastating curveball with ease, his skips off the mound and roundhouse punches growing more intense as the 10th turned into the 11th, the 12th, the 13th.
It evoked memories of Nathan Eovaldi’s six-inning relief perfromance in the 2018 World Series, which ended in an 18th-inning walk-off home run from the Dodgers’ Max Muncy.
In this Game 3, Eovaldi started and pitched five strong innings, striking out eight. His effort was rewarded when Pivetta came through in similar fashion.
“He was amazing,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Very, very similar to Nate in Game 3 of the World Series a few years ago.”
And now, decision time for both managers. Cash had to burn his likely Game 4 starter – Patiño – in Sunday’s 12th and 13th innings; it’s possible reliever Collin McHugh could open the game, potentially covering multiple innings.
Cora must decide whether to go back to ineffective lefties Chris Sale or Eduardo Rodriguez, or a full bullpen effort in Game 4.
Rays rookie Shane McClanahan and Red Sox right-hander Tanner Houck would likely loom in Game 5. But there may be many, many plot twists by then.
For now, it is the Red Sox writing their preferred script.
“I don’t want that play to take away from what this game was on both sides,” says Hernandez. “Both teams played a helluva game. This is what October is all about.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Red Sox beat Rays in ALDS Game 3 on odd bounce, walk-off