The moment Koji Uehara’s ninth inning fastball blew past Evan Longoria and into David Ross’ glove, more than a day’s worth of built up tension, fear and anxiety instantly disappeared. Just like that. Faster than you can say “Joe Maddon pitching change,” the Sox’ playoff stranglehold on the Tampa Bay Rays returned to the form that it had taken during Games 1 and 2 at Fenway. But now, even more so. Because it was over. Because it is over.
The terrifying prospect of a win-or-go-home battle with David Price? Dead. The lingering trauma from Jose Lobaton’s series extending walk off? Gone. Cat walks. Cowbells. Longoria’s power. Wil Myer’s potential. Fernando Rodney’s crooked hat and crazy eyes. Joe Maddon’s Sally Jesse glasses and hipster Zen. Every angle has been conquered, and the Sox are moving on.
So, what’s next? Well, with every passing day, the details of this Tampa takedown will grow increasingly insignificant. From here on out, nothing that the Sox have already done can compare to what they still have to do. Success doesn’t breed satisfaction, but instead, greater expectations. Either way, by the time Jon Lester let’s fly on the first pitch of the ALCS on Saturday night at Fenway, last night’s clincher at the Trop will feel like ancient history. Like, “Hey, what was the name of that catcher who hit the walk off against Koji? Jose Loobywhat?” At the very least, it will feel as distant as the regular season does right now. A different world. A lower life form.
But at this very moment, the ALDS is still all she wrote. Until the A’s and Tigers finish their business on Thursday night in Oakland, the ALCS doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it’s only in theory. In the form of two equally realistic but drastically different possibilities.
Detroit or Oakland?
The answer will arrive sometime early Friday morning, which is fine because the Sox will need about that long to sober up from last night. In the meantime, the postseason foundation has been set, and here what we’ve seen so far:
* Jacoby Ellsbury’s clearly healthy and was hands down Boston’s offensive ALDS MVP. In four games, he collected nine hits, scored seven runs and stole four bases. He hit .500 with a .526 OBP and 1.137 OPS. He was also responsible for the following phone call, overheard last night from a stall inside a Tropicana Field men’s room: “Doc? Hey, it’s Scott Boras. Listen, I know I’m supposed to call if it lasts for more than four hours, but I gotta tell you: I don’t care! I love it, baby! We did it, Ells!”
* The craziest thing about Ellsbury’s .526 OBP? It was only the third best on-base percentage on the team. Both David Ortiz and Shane Victorino reached base at a .556 clip, which means that three of Boston’s first four batters were on base better than 50 percent of the time.
Given those numbers, it’s at least somewhat troubling that the Sox fifth and sixth hitters combined for a total of three RBI against Tampa, and didn’t knock in a single run after Game 1. (No. 5 hitter Mike Napoli was 2-for-13 and finds himself mired in another trademark slump, which hopefully means that he due for a trademark explosion in the ALCS.) Either way, you can’t go wrong with that kind productivity from the top of your line-up, and while it’s insane to expect Ellsbury, Victorino and Ortiz to maintain that level of on-basery . . . who knows? Ortiz is clearly locked in, and as long as he can avoid injury (a threat that presents itself each and every time he leaves the batter’s box), the production will be there. And as for Victorino, not even a potential slump can erase his innate ability and willingness to take repeated fastballs off the torso.
* Then there’s Dustin Pedroia, who only hit .235 with a .211 OBP in the ALDS. On defense, he’s either lost all faith in Stephen Drew’s range at shortstop or just plain lost his mind. All in all, Pedroia’s had far better playoff series than the one that just wrapped.
Still, in Game 3, it was Pedroia’s RBI ground out that tied the game in the top of the ninth. In Game 4, it was Pedroia’s sac fly that provided a much-appreciated insurance run heading into the bottom of the ninth.
You obviously want more than RBI groundouts and sac flies from your No. 3 hitter. The Sox will need more than that against the Tigers or A’s, who finished second and third in the American League in runs scored. But for one series, struggles aside, at least Pedroia squeeze out a little timely productivity.
* Count me among the growing population of human beings who would love to see more of Xander Bogaerts. While he wasn’t tested much on defense against Tampa (although he did make that one great stop in hole), he’s wise beyond his years at the dish, and his mere presence screws with a pitcher in ways that Stephen Drew can only dream of. Bogaerts drew two walks and scored two runs in a pair of at-bats last night. Stephen Drew drew zero walks and scored one run in 15 at-bats all series. He also hit .133.
That said, John Farrell’s stuck with Drew for so long this season, it’s fair to doubt that he’ll ever pull the trigger and give Xander the start that he most certainly deserves. And it doesn’t help that Oakland and Detroit’s respective starting rotations feature exactly zero lefties.
* Lester – Lackey – Buchholz – Peavy
Hey, no one’s perfect. Everyone’s susceptible to a shaky start. Especially against the lineups that the Sox will face down the stretch. But on the list of the Sox potential ALCS concerns “Do we have enough starting pitching?” is right at the bottom alongside “Do we need to buy more shaving cream for the clubhouse bathroom?”
* But while no one’s particularly worried, the starting pitching could have been better against Tampa. Only Jon Lester pitched into the seventh inning. But thankfully for everyone involved, the bullpen was on another level, and leaves the team and its fans feeling better about that portion of the roster attack than anyone could have imagined. I mean, who would have thought that Koji Uehara would only be the team’s third most effective ALDS reliever?
Putting aside that one pitch to Jose Lobaton, which wasn’t that bad of a pitch to begin with, Koji is still Koji. But the real story is Junichi Tazawa and, even more so, Craig Breslow. They are the bridge that drew so much concern heading into the postseason, and right now, after an ALDS that saw the pair strike out six, allow only three hits, one walk and zero runs over a combined seven innings, that bridge is more solid than the Great Wall of China.
And regardless of which team is in the opposing dugout on Saturday night, so are the Sox hopes of emerging from what will soon be a two-team race for the American League crown.
We’ll have more on that later in the week, but for now, cheers.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine