The Hot Corner: Ghosts of October
Derek Jeter used to say the ghosts come out in October (or at least that line has been attributed to him). According to legend, Jeter said this to a light-hitting corner infielder named Aaron Boone in the late innings of Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series (ALCS).
Not long after, then-Yankees manager Joe Torre put Boone in to pinch-run for Ruben Sierra. Torre was certainly hoping the game would be over before Boone’s spot came up in the lineup, and he was probably pessimistic when Boone stepped up to face Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer who had stymied the Yankees for the entire series.
Without a doubt, Torre was just as surprised as the rest of America when Boone launched the first pitch he saw far into the left-field seats for a walk-off win that put the Yankees into the Fall Classic once again.
The “ghosts” line, which really was just some dugout chit-chat between a superstar shortstop and a trade-deadline acquisition who had been benched for the game, is often used as part of the “Field of Dreams”-style narrative of the romance of baseball.
There is, of course, another way to look at it. “We have ghosts” is a melodramatic explanation for the unexplainable. Ghosts open doors that were locked and blow out candles when there wasn’t any wind. Ghosts explain things that simply make no sense. And in playoff baseball, most things make no sense.
This was true for most of the Boston Red Sox playoff run. That some kind of run would occur was fairly predictable, given that Boston had won an Major League Baseball-best 108 games during the regular season. But if you had asked a Red Sox fan what a successful World Series-winning run looked like a month ago, that fan would probably describe two dominant starts each series from Cy Young worthy ace Chris Sale, mammoth production from the top of the lineup and lights-out saves from closer Craig Kimbrel.
Sale would have to make up for the rest of the shaky rotation, including the playoff-untested and injury-plagued Nathan Eovaldi as well as the choke artist formerly known as David Price.
The top of the lineup would need to put up enough runs to offset the woeful production from the bottom half of the order, especially the much-maligned Jackie Bradley Jr., who could hardly hit his way out of a paper bag during the regular season. And of course, each game would end with the team’s nightmarish relief pitching core clawing tooth and nail to carry a lead into the safe hands of Kimbrel. Such a narrative could not be further from what actually happened.
The Boston bullpen, which many thought would be the team’s undoing and most everyone thought would be its biggest weakness, was dominant. Nathan Eovaldi, whom the Red Sox settled for at the deadline because they had too little farm talent to trade for Zach Britton, allowed only three earned runs across 22 1/3 innings of work. On the other hand, Craig Kimbrel — supposedly the best closer in baseball — gave Boston fans cardiac arrhythmia throughout the playoffs.
The two biggest shockers, however, were the All-Star level performances of David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr. When Price signed his albatross contract with the Red Sox in December 2015, the common refrain was that he couldn’t pitch against the Yankees and he couldn’t pitch in the playoffs.
Usually, reputations of playoff failure don’t actually hold much weight when investigated more thoroughly In Price’s case, however, his was hard to dispute. Heading into this year’s ALCS, Price boasted a career 5.54 ERA in the playoffs and regularly blew up, including a start in the divisional series against the Yankees that lasted only an inning and two-thirds, home runs from which have yet to land after entering orbit. He has feuded with the Boston media over this narrative and acted as if this were all some big fluke, but in his first ALCS start, he blew up yet again, allowing four earned runs in less than five innings.
In Game Five of the series, with the Sox leading 3-1, Price got the ball again due to a mysterious ailment affecting Sale, and all of Boston held its breath. Unexpectedly, Price was absolutely brilliant, throwing six shutout innings to all but clinch a World Series berth.
Though Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford would never be content with a six-inning outing in the playoffs, Price did the best any starting pitcher in the modern game could expect to do. In Game Two of the World Series, he again excelled, only allowing two runs against a potent Los Angeles Dodgers lineup in the freezing cold environs of Fenway Park.
After this pair of sterling outings, Price stepped to the mound in Game Five with the chanceto close out the series and deliver Boston its fourth World Series title in 14 years. The first batter he faced was David Freese, who on Price’s very first offering, cranked a solo home run.
For most Boston fans, it seemed that the clock had struck midnight and the carriage had turned back into a pumpkin. Groans of “here we go again” were heard from Portsmouth to Bangor to Plymouth.
Except, this time Price did not get in his own head. He did not walk the next two batters to set up a three-run blast. The Freese home run was the first and last run he allowed over the course of a seven-inning outing, perhaps the single best pitching performance in the entirety of the MLB postseason. He went from bete noire to October hero.
And then there’s Jackie Bradley Jr, who hit .234 in the regular season, a number that was boosted considerably by a few brief hot streaks.
Of the four Dodgers starting pitchers who faced the Red Sox in the World Series, two had higher batting averages than Bradley’s regular season mark. JBJ — the affectionate moniker bestowed upon Bradley by Sox fans — might not have gotten at-bats on a little league team if his dad were the coach. His mother would have dropped him from her fantasy team.
And yet, he turned in a nine-RBI performance against the Houston Astros, good enough to win ALCS MVP.
As it turned out, Boston needed every bit of production it got from Bradley, Price and all the other unlikely October heroes. Mookie Betts, the presumptive American League MVP who led all of baseball with a .346 batting average, hit a measly .209 this October with only four RBIs.
JD Martinez, the American League leader in RBIs and second place finisher in both home runs and batting average, hit a merely acceptable .278 in the ALCS and World Series.
Chris Sale pitched fewer than 16 innings across the ALDS, ALCS and World Series, due to a combination of injuries and general poor play.
I don’t know how any of this happened, but the Boston Red Sox are the 2018 World Series Champions. I’m starting to think October might actually be haunted.