Red Sox Send Yankees Message with 1st Blow of Another Rivalry Classic

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 6, 2018

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 05:  Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox is congratulated in the dugout after being relieved in the sixth inning of Game One of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on October 5, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The latest postseason clash between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees picked up where the last one left off in 2004.

With Boston on top.

Although the Red Sox barely eked out a 5-4 win over their longtime nemeses in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday, the game somehow felt even closer than that.

The early innings were a rout in favor of the home team. That had much to do with Chris Sale's triumphant return to power-pitching goodness on the run prevention side of things. On the other side, J.D. Martinez provided an early exclamation mark with a three-run home run in the first inning.

In the later innings, however, the Yankees sucked as much life as they could out of the capacity crowd at Fenway Park. The trick was to exploit the Red Sox's not-so-secret Achilles' heel: their bullpen.

Boston relievers technically had a solid season, putting up a 3.74 ERA that ranked ninth in Major League Baseball. But the front office and manager Alex Cora never figured out the bridge to ace closer Craig Kimbrel. It really started to show in September, as Boston's pen slumped to a 4.84 ERA.

Signs of progress were not immediately apparent after Cora lifted Sale with one out in the sixth inning.

Ryan Brasier allowed two of his inherited runners to score. The Yankees then loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh, ultimately settling for one run. Cora resorted to bringing in 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello to begin the eighth and then Kimbrel for a four-out save. He got it but not before surrendering a solo blast to Aaron Judge.

Throughout all the late-inning drama, the sheer evenness of these Red Sox and Yankees teams was as tangible as the spines on a porcupine. Game 1 certainly felt like a showdown between two teams that combined for 208 victories in the regular season.

Still, the Red Sox did win to grab a 1-0 series lead. And couched in how they did it are real positives.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 05:  Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch during Game One of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on October 5, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty I
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Start with Sale, who became the first Red Sox starter to pitch into the sixth inning of a postseason game since John Lackey in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series.

The big question coming into Friday was whether Sale would regain any of the fastball velocity he'd been missing after returning from a second bout with shoulder inflammation on Sept. 11. Previously, he'd averaged 95 mph on his fastball. He averaged 92.7 mph afterward, including 90.2 mph in his final regular-season tuneup Sept. 26.

Cora tried to quell unrest by pointing to Sale's mechanics, not his shoulder.

"I don't feel that's the reason," the first-year skipper told reporters. "We've been talking about it the whole time, and we don't feel it's the shoulder. His mechanics were way off in the first outing, probably, they got better, then all of the sudden last one it wasn't there. But we don't feel it has anything to do with the shoulder."

Evidently, Sale has fixed what had been ailing him.

He sat at 94.6 mph with his four-seamer in Game 1, with a peak of 96.6 mph. That made it easier for him to catch Yankees hitters off-guard with his slider and changeup, which drew nine whiffs out of 49 total pitches.

Sale isn't all the way back to the otherworldly dominance (1.97 ERA and 219 strikeouts in 146 innings) he displayed through his first 23 starts. But he nonetheless looked the part of a Game 1 starter. Should the Red Sox need one, that's a solid assurance he can also be an ace in Game 4 or Game 5.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox offense operated in much the same way it did all season.

It revolved around Martinez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi. They provided six of the team's eight hits, as well as four of its five runs batted in. Most of this happened in two-plus innings of exposure to J.A. Happ, who was the Yankees' de facto ace down the stretch.

Though nowhere near as big a concern as the team's bullpen, the shallowness of Boston's lineup around its big four is a red flag. Especially opposite the Yankees lineup, which got contributions from all over en route to a record 267 homers in the regular season.

It is some comfort, however, that Martinez, Betts, Bogaerts and Benintendi are all complete hitters who can hit good pitching. The Red Sox will be in good shape if they can keep throwing punches early—particularly if it's in tandem with more good starting pitching, which the Red Sox stand to get if David Price and Porcello pitch to their best abilities in Games 2 and 3.

Of course, the Yankees don't necessarily have to be impressed by any of this.

For them, it's a moral victory that Boston's best starter could only muster 16 outs in Game 1. Their harsh exposure of the Red Sox's bullpen is yet another moral victory. From here, it may not be that difficult to ride their bats and bullpen to a series tie and beyond.        

In either event, the Red Sox and Yankees have taken the first step toward another October classic.

                                          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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