In the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that could ravage other teams’ postseason aspirations, the Red Sox are proving that they should still be taken seriously despite having placed nine players on the COVID-related injured list.
Saturday was just the latest instance of this resilience, as the Sox fought their way to a 4-3 walk-off victory over the Indians at Fenway Park to push their winning streak to four consecutive games.
Tanner Houck, making his 10th start and 12th overall appearance of the season for Boston, laid out the groundwork for his team’s fourth straight win by keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard while scattering just three hits, zero walks, and seven strikeouts over five strong innings of work.
Having just faced off the Indians on the road last weekend, Houck proved to be much more in control this time around by demonstrating better command on the mound.
The right-hander dealt with some traffic on the base paths, such as a leadoff single in the first inning or leadoff double in the third inning, but was otherwise solid as he retired the final nine batters he faced in order through the end of the fifth.
At that moment in time, Houck’s pitch count was relatively low, but Red Sox manager Alex Cora did not want him to go up against the Indians lineup for a third time, so his night promptly came to an end there.
Finishing with a final pitch count of 68 (47 strikes), the 25-year-old hurler did not factor into Saturday’s decision, though he did lower his ERA on the season to 3.26.
In relief of Houck, left-hander Austin Davis got the first call out of the bullpen in the sixth inning of a scoreless contest and immediately surrendered a leadoff double to Andres Gimenez to put the potential go-ahead run in scoring position.
Davis did manage to get the next two outs, but did so while allowing Gimenez to steal third before intentionally walking the dangerous Jose Ramirez and issuing another free pass to Bobby Bradley.
That sequence led to the Indians loading the bases with two outs in the sixth, and it led to Cora turning to Hansel Robles to get out of the jam.
Robles, in turn, got Harold Ramirez to rip a 97.2 mph grounder back up the middle that deflected off his foot and rolled over to Bobby Dalbec at first base in time to get the final out.
Phillips Valdez followed in Robles’ footsteps by tossing a scoreless top of the seventh, granting the Red Sox lineup to put something together in their half of the frame.
To that point, the Boston bats had been stymied by Indians starter Eli Morgan, but were able to get it going once the Cleveland bullpen took over.
Christian Vazquez led off against Nick Wittgren by lacing a hard-hit single to center field. Jack Lopez followed by moving Vazquez up to second on a successful sacrifice bunt, while Jonathan Arauz followed suit by advancing to Vazquez to third on a groundout.
Those two productive outs put the Sox in a promising position as the lineup flipped back over for Kyle Schwarber, who greeted new Indians reliever Blake Parker by drawing a five-pitch walk to put runners at the corners for Rafael Devers.
After working a full count on the first five pitches he saw from Parker, Devers took the sixth pitch — a juicy 92 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate — and came through with the clutchest hit of the ballgame to that point by clubbing a 419-foot three-run homer well over the Green Monster.
Not only did Devers’ 33rd home run of the season set a new career-high for the young All-Star and bring him up to 100 RBI on the year, it also gave the Red Sox their first lead of the night at 3-0.
Valdez, after retiring the side in order in the seventh, did the very same in the eighth, meaning the Sox were just three outs away from securing a series win over the Indians.
Adam Ottavino, however, had different plans, as he gave up a leadoff single to Ramirez to begin things in the ninth before yielding an RBI double to Bradley, making it a 3-1 game in favor of Boston.
The veteran reliever did get the first two outs of the ninth and was one strike away from retiring the pinch-hitting Franmil Reyes, but instead served up a game-tying, two-run home run to Reyes, thus knotting things up at three runs apiece.
To their credit, the Red Sox did not waver even after seeing their three-run lead come off the board. Travis Shaw, pinch-hitting for Lopez, led off the bottom of the ninth off Indians reliever Bryan Shaw by reaching base via an infield single.
Shaw was then replaced by the pinch-running Taylor Motter, who moved up to second on yet another sacrifice bunt from Arauz.
Schwarber then flew out to center field against Alex Young, while Devers drew a five-pitch walk off the newly-inserted Cleveland reliever.
J.D. Martinez got ahead in the count at 2-0, and was promptly intentionally walked to fill the bases with two outs for Alex Verdugo.
Verdugo, motivated by the Indians intentionally walking to get to Martinez since they had a left-hander in Young on the mound, made Cleveland pay for their decision by drilling a walk-off, run-scoring single over the head of Daniel Johnson in right field.
Motter was able to easily score from third on Verdugo’s late-game heroics, and the Sox came away with a 4-3 victory as a result.
By extending their winning streak to four straight games on Saturday, the Red Sox improved to 79-59 on the season and are once again 20 games over .500 for the first time since July 31.
With the Yankees and Athletics both losing on Saturday, Boston now has a four-game lead over Oakland for the second American League Wild Card spot and only trail New York by 1/2 a game for the first American League Wild Card spot.
Next up: Pivetta vs. Plesac
The Red Sox will send right-hander Nick Pivetta to the mound as they look to complete the three-game sweep of the Indians on Sunday afternoon.
Pivetta will be going up against fellow righty Zach Plesac, who will be making his 21st start of the season for the Indians.
First pitch Sunday is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. eastern time on NESN and TBS.
(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)