Garrett Whitlock closing out Wild Card Game win for Red Sox a fitting way for Yankees’ season to end

At this time one year ago, Garrett Whitlock was still a member of the Yankees organization.

While still recovering from Tommy John surgery that he underwent the previous July, Whitlock — then a prospect — was left off the Yankees’ 40-man roster as the November 20 deadline to add eligible minor-leaguers came and went.

As a result, Whitlock was to be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft the following month. And despite only having pitched 70 1 /3 innings above the High-A level since being drafted in 2017, the right-hander was scooped up by the Red Sox in said draft on December 10.

Fast forward 10 month later, and Whitlock was presented with the opportunity to end his former team’s 2021 season on the biggest of stages under the bright lights at Fenway Park.

After putting together a fantastic rookie season in which he posted a 1.96 ERA, 2.84 FIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 81-17 over 46 relief appearances spanning 73 1/3 frames of work, Whitlock was called upon in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s Wild Card Game against the Yankees.

Having just been activated from the 10-day injured list two days prior, the 25-year-old hurler was tasked by Red Sox manager Alex Cora to record the final three outs of the night.

Working with a five-run lead to protect while taking over for Hansel Robles, Whitlock got the first batter he faced in Aaron Judge to ground out to Xander Bogaerts at shortstop.

He then yielded a solo shot to Giancarlo Stanton that cut New York’s deficit to four runs, but bounced back by retiring Joey Gallo and Gleyber Torres in order to put the finishing touches on a 6-2 Wild Card victory for the Red Sox.

In closing things out on just eight pitches (seven strikes) in the top of the ninth, not only did Whitlock send the Sox to the American League Division Series; he eliminated the Yankees from the postseason as well.

For as humble as he is, it’s unlikely Whitlock would say anything about Tuesday’s win meaning more since it sent his former team home packing. Still, as a competitor, there has to be some level of gratification upon successfully dashing the hopes of the organization that essentially gave up on you not too long ago.

(Picture of Garrett Whitlock: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Kevin Plawecki expected to start over Christian Vázquez, catch Nathan Eovaldi in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game vs. Yankees

When the Red Sox take the field at Fenway Park for Tuesday night’s Wild Card Game against the Yankees, it will most likely be Kevin Plawecki — not Christian Vazquez — catching starter Nathan Eovaldi.

While Vazquez clearly established himself as the Sox’ top catcher this season by leading all major-league backstops in innings caught (1,051 1/3), Plawecki forged a better repertoire with Eovaldi over the course of the 2021 campaign.

Of the team-leading 32 starts Eovaldi made for Boston this year, 17 came with Plawecki behind the plate and 13 came with Vazquez catching him. With Plawecki, the right-hander posted a 3.28 ERA and .644 OPS against over 96 innings of work. With Vazquez, on the other hand, he put up a significantly higher 4.77 ERA and .766 OPS against in 66 innings.

“Those two have done an amazing job together,” Red Sox manager Cora said Monday in regards to the Eovaldi-Plawecki battery. “Nothing against Christian, but they have been good. I think that’s just the answer. You know, offensively, I think both have done a good job lately. You know, Kevin can catch up with the fastball, too. We know that.”

Though Cora did mention that Vazquez will be ready in the event that he is needed Tuesday, the decision to start Plawecki speaks to the level of confidence the Sox have in their backup.

Despite some defensive concerns, the 30-year-old veteran enjoyed another productive season at the plate in which he slashed .287/.349/.389 (102 wRC+) with seven doubles, three home runs, 15 RBI, 15 runs scored, 12 walks, and 26 strikeouts over 64 games (173 plate appearances) in limited playing time.

As Cora alluded to, Plawecki did have success against the fastball this season, as he hit .280 and slugged .410 while clubbing all three of his homers off that particular pitch.

Plawecki’s ability to handle the fastball should come in handy on Tuesday with ace right-hander Gerrit Cole on the mound for New York to start things off. Per Baseball Savant, Cole relied on his four-seam fastball more than any other pitch this season by turning to it more than 47% of the time.

In seven games — four of which were starts — against the Yankees this year, the right-handed hitting Plawecki slashed an impressive .313/.389/.563 across 18 trips to the plate.

Against Cole specifically, Plawecki is 1-for-3 with a single and strikeout, though all three of those plate appearances came back in 2015 — when Plawecki was a rookie with the Mets and Cole was still with the Pirates.

(Picture of Kevin Plawecki and Nathan Eovaldi: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Where Red Sox stand in Wild Card race heading into final stretch of regular season

Following a three-game sweep of the lowly Orioles at Fenway Park over the weekend, the Red Sox find themselves in an encouraging spot heading into the home stretch of the 2021 regular season.

Having won five straight and seven of their last 10 games, the Sox have improved to 86-65 on the year and currently hold a one-game lead over the Blue Jays (84-65) for the top American League Wild Card spot.

So, if the season were to have ended on Sunday night, Boston would be hosting Toronto in a one-game playoff come October 5. But the season did not end on Sunday, as the Red Sox still have 11 games remaining on the docket.

Of those 11 games, the next five will take place at home with the Mets coming into town for a two-game interleague series that begins on Tuesday and the Yankees visiting for a three-game weekend set that begins on Friday.

Following the conclusion of next weekend’s series with New York, the Sox will embark upon a six-game road trip that includes stops in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to close out the season.

With that being said, strength of schedule plays into Boston’s favor here. Of the four teams they will be playing over the next two weeks, only the Yankees (83-67) have a winning record — though none of the four teams would have qualified for the postseason if the regular season had ended on Sunday.

According to Tankathon.com, the Red Sox have the third-easiest schedule in baseball and the easiest schedule in the American League the rest of the way, as the four clubs they will be facing off against have a combined winning percentage of .437. Only the Phillies (.407) and Reds (.419) have easier remaining schedules.

As of Monday morning, FanGraphs gives the Sox an 89.7% chance to make the playoffs, which is up dramatically from where it was at this time one week ago (63.2%).

Baseball-Reference, on the other hand, currently gives the Red Sox an 85.9% chance to make the playoffs after giving them a 71.4% chance just last week.

Of the five teams competing for the two American League Wild Card spots, the Sox are the only club that is off on Monday. The Blue Jays will be opening up a three-game series against the division-leading Rays at Tropicana Field, the Yankees will be opening up a three-game series against the lowly Rangers in the Bronx, and the Athletics and Mariners commence a pivotal four-game series in Oakland.

Taking all that into consideration, the Red Sox at best can carry with them a 1 1/2 game lead over the Jays for the top Wild Card spot coming into play on Tuesday. At worst, it could be just a 1/2 game lead.

(Picture of Alex Verdugo, Enrique Hernandez, and Hunter Renfroe: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Chris Sale Allows Three Runs, Fans Eight in Final Start Before Postseason.

Making his final regular season start in game two of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night, Chris Sale looked to make any final adjustments needed before heading into his consecutive postseason with the Red Sox.

In what was his 27th start of the season and fourth since returning from the disabled list earlier in the month, the left-hander tossed nearly five innings, surrendered three runs on four hits, one walk, and two HBPs to go along with eight strikeouts on the night.

Coming off a standard four days rest in this one, it was a bit surprising to see Sale struggle the way he did in the first, as he hit two of the first four batters he faced while allowing two Orioles runs to cross the plate.

From that point, the 29-year-old retired nine of the next 11 hitters he faced before running into more trouble in the fifth, where he allowed a leadoff single to Caleb Joseph, recorded the first two outs of the inning, walked Trey Mancini on five pitches, and gave up an RBI single to Adam Jones, which plated the go-ahead run at the time from second base.

Clearly frustrated with himself, that is how Sale’s night would come to a conclusion.

On a more positive note, Wednesday’s performance was the most work the Florida native has gotten in a start since July 27th against the Minnesota Twins.

Finishing with a final pitch count of 92 (58 strikes), Sale threw 34 four-seam fastballs, 29 sliders, 25 changeups, and five two-seam fastballs. He was caught by Christian Vazquez.

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Topping out at 94.5 MPH with that four-seamer in the fifth inning, the former White Sox hurler induced 14 total swinging strikes and got 12 called for strikes.

Picking up the no-decision with his ERA inflating a bit, we can now officially say Sale’s 2018 campaign is in the books. Let’s take a look at some of his numbers from this season:

27 GS, 158 IP, 102 H, 39 R (37 ER), 34 BB, 237 K, 2.11 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

Pretty decent campaign for the southpaw in his second season with Boston. Given the rather low number of innings pitched, it will be interesting to see how that influences the American League Cy Young voting. If not Sale, I would probably give my hypothetical vote Rays ace Blake Snell. Those results will be announced on November 14th.

Outside of the individual accolades, most Red Sox fans are enthralled to see how Chris Sale will perform postseason time, and he’ll get his first crack at that on Friday in game one of the ALDS. Whether it comes against the New York Yankees or Oakland Athletics has yet to be determined.

In his one and only postseason run last year, Sale posted an unsightly 8.38 ERA over two games (one start) and 9.2 innings pitched against the Houston Astros.

But, that was last season. Things could be different now given the fact Sale will make his first start of this year’s ALDS at Fenway Park for a change. We’ll have to wait and see.