Boston Red Sox’ season for the ages ends with World Series title
LOS ANGELES — Like bricks arrayed by the most meticulous mason, 115 unframed eight-by-10-inch photographs filled much of two walls in the Fenway Park office of Red Sox manager Alex Cora as the World Series began. Only the bottom row failed to square off with the rest, with room for four shots to complete the symmetry. Four more bricks in the wall.
The photos, most of them action shots, represented each of Boston’s wins: 108 in the regular season, three in the American League Division Series, and four in the AL Championship Series. With four more, the Red Sox would know more victories than every World Series champion except the 125-win Yankees in 1998. True, divisional playoffs, which began in 1969 and expanded in ’95, offer more opportunities to pile up W’s. But the flip side is an increased opportunity for losses that send the best team home. Only three times in the previous 23 years of the wild-card era did the outright regular-season wins leader take the World Series.
The Red Sox needed only five games against the Dodgers to secure those last four bricks. Cora’s devotional wall would become exactly what his team proved to be: complete, and as stalwart as fired clay bound by mortar.
“Now we deserve to be known as the greatest Red Sox team of all time,” infielder Brock Holt said after win number 119, an airtight, stress-free 5–1 victory in Game 5 on Sunday in Los Angeles. “And if you want to put us with some of the best overall, we’ll take that. This team is special.”
The 2018 Red Sox forever will be remembered for their collection of 119 victories. The drive on Massachusetts Route 119—from Ashburnham, over the Squannacook and Nashua Rivers, through Groton and all the way to Concord and Walden Pond—will never feel the same.
Yet for all those wins it was one defeat that defined the team’s soul and spirit. To deeply understand these Red Sox, not just remember them, you have to hear the hidden story of the longest, most grueling, most absurd loss any team ever suffered in 665 World Series games.
It was half past midnight at Dodger Stadium, and more than an hour after the trains in Boston stopped running and the bars stopped serving, when the Red Sox, still jet-lagged from the 2,611-air-mile trip to L.A., trudged back to their clubhouse with a 3–2 walk-off loss that had taken 18 innings and seven hours, 20 minutes, Series records for toil and time.
“Everybody, clubhouse!” Cora shouted in the labyrinth under the first base stands. “Meeting!”
Cora is a rookie manager who abhors team meetings, so the call to gather, especially at such an hour after two fitfully long days, hinted at the importance of the moment. What happened next will make for the best stories these championship brothers tell when they gather years from now, as their bodies and competitive edges soften.
The Red Sox have won four of the first 15 World Series titles and now four of the past 15. The 2004 team broke the great void in between. Their best memories are of the bonding that happened off-camera, such as some players downing shots before Game 4 of the ALCS, the first of four straight wins against the Yankees when facing elimination.
Such a genuine, shared moment arrived for these Red Sox in what seemed the empty wake of their brutal Game 3 loss. Cora sprung into action. He saw defeat just as Massachusetts’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did in his poem “Loss and Gain,” published in 1882, the year of his death. Longfellow lamented wasted days, then pivoted to optimism:
“But who shall dare to measure loss and gain in this wise? Defeat may be victory in disguise; The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.”
“It’s a big reason,” Holt says, “why we won the next two games. It’s a great example of how the whole group played for each other and would do anything to help the team.”
The morning of Game 3, David Price marched into Cora’s office at Dodger Stadium and snarled, “I need to pitch today.”
That proposal might have seemed absurd before the ALCS against the Astros: Price’s teams lost each of his first 10 career postseason starts. But late in Game 4 in Houston, the lefthander warmed up strenuously as potential help for closer Craig Kimbrel. During that session Price locked down mechanical changes in his delivery, throwing from a more upright posture and taking the ball out of his glove later from a higher-position—switches that added a tick to his fastball and tremendous sink to his changeup. The next night Price shed psychological baggage when he beat the Astros 4–1 with six shutout innings. Now he seemed to want the ball at every opportunity; Price had either pitched or warmed up for seven of Boston’s last nine games. When he entered Cora’s office, he had had only one day of rest after allowing two runs over six innings in a 4–2 win in Game 2.
“I’m so mad, I need to pitch,” Price told Cora, then explained the source of his anger.
The Red Sox were staying at a hotel in Pasadena. The club had flown the players’ families to Los Angeles. Price had his 17-month-old son, Xavier, with him. On the morning of Game 3, Price called to have breakfast sent up. Nothing came for 90 minutes, an eternity for anyone with a hungry toddler. It turned out that several other Red Sox families had similar horror stories about the hotel’s room service.
“David’s so competitive,” Cora says. “I think he likes coming to the ballpark and knowing there’s a chance he can help the team and compete every day. I think he enjoys this more than the regular routine of starting.”
Several Boston players complained to team management, which lodged a complaint with the hotel. Hotel officials promised to make amends. They would set aside a ballroom each morning for a free breakfast buffet for Red Sox players and their families.
No one really knew the importance of that gesture until after the absurdity that was Game 3.
Price, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez combined to start 124 -regular-season games for Boston, but they all took side work in the bullpen during the postseason. Cora came up with a name for these moonlighting starters: the Rovers, because he could drop them in anywhere, anytime to fortify his usual corps of relievers.
The idea goes back to the 2017 postseason, when Cora was bench coach for the Astros, who deployed Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers in such a way. It was what Boston had in mind when president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acquired Eovaldi from the Rays in July.
“Everybody was saying, ‘You need to do something about the bullpen. Why are you getting another starter?’ ” says vice president of baseball operations Frank Wren. “We made that trade specifically with October in mind and knowing that Eovaldi could be our Charlie Morton.”
By the end of the regular season the pickup took on added importance. Sale developed left shoulder inflammation, which twice put him on the disabled list and slowed his fastball from 98 mph in August to 93 in September. The Sox’ ace was compromised, and he wasn’t going to get better without extended rest. “That’s when we knew we were going to have to use the Rovers,” Cora says.
Game 1 played out exactly as Cora feared: Sale, with diminished stuff, gave him only five innings and let in three runs. Cora helped cover the rest of the game by using Rodriguez and Eovaldi, who each made scoreless appearances, as Rovers.
Such a subpar start by Sale handed L.A. a perfect opportunity to steal the opener, at Fenway. But the Dodgers’ ace, Clayton Kershaw, was even worse: five runs over four innings in what became an 8–4 loss. Price consolidated that victory in Game 2, with Eovaldi rovering behind him.
The Rover usage underscored an unselfish streak in the Red Sox that had been apparent since they reported to Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training. Hitting coach Tim Hyers asked Cora before camp opened about rotating players through situational hitting drills on a back field. Hyers would crank a pitching machine near 100 mph or fire the nastiest breaking balls imaginable. Batters were charged simply with trying to make contact. Foul balls were cheered.
“I loved it,” Cora recalls. “I’ve heard people say a strikeout is just another out. I never believed that was true.”
Says Holt, “Nobody has their timing yet and nobody likes hitting off a machine because they’re so hard to time. But everybody bought into it.”
Boston became baseball’s best two-strike hitting team, just like world champion Houston the year before. In the postseason the Red Sox hit an absurd .364 with runners in scoring position. The other playoff teams hit .197. If the 1815 Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the 2018 World Series was won on the back fields of Fort Myers.
Two of the biggest hits in the Series can be traced to that evil pitching machine. Catcher Christian Vazquez started the winning rally in Game 2 with a two-strike, abbreviated swing for an opposite-field single, and Holt started the winning rally in Game 4 with a two-strike, abbreviated swing for an opposite-field double.
“Brock loves playing in Boston,” Cora says. “You know at Fenway, when they introduce Luis Tiant or one of those guys in the third inning of games—‘Legends of Fenway’? That’s what Brock always says he wants to be.”
Watching these Red Sox play is like going back to the Kodachrome days of those legends. Accomplished pitchers gladly coming out of the bullpen between starts? Hitters, in a season that featured more strikeouts than hits for the first time ever, gladly shortening their cuts just to make contact?
What kind of manager could possibly get that kind of buy-in from players today?
Dombrowski didn’t know Cora personally. They ran into each other once on the same Caribbean island about five years ago and chatted briefly, but that had been the extent of their familiarity before the Boston managing job opened up last year.
“Dave decided on a clean sweep,” owner John Henry says. “He wanted a fresh start.”
After winning 93 games in 2017, the Red Sox lost to the Astros 3–1 in the Division Series. Two days later Dombrowski fired manager John Farrell. And four days after that Dombrowski, Henry and other staff members were interviewing Cora in a suite at the Palace Hotel in New York City during an off day for Houston in the ALCS. Cora had been highly recommended by senior vice president of player personnel Allard Baird and assistant GM Eddie Romero, who both knew him from his time as a Red Sox infielder, from 2005 to ’08. “Everyone I talked to,” Dombrowski said, “kept telling me he was one of the smartest ballplayers they ever came across.”
Cora honed his managerial chops playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico for Sandy Alomar Sr., who taught him how the count, outs, inning and score dictate decision-making. “See that scoreboard?” Alomar would tell him. “That’s not for the fans. That’s for the manager and the player. The scoreboard tells you how to play.”
The Red Sox threw hypothetical predicaments at Cora involving the front office, media and baseball operations and asked how he would solve them. Cora was in the room for three hours. By the time he left. he essentially owned the job.
“Confident,” Henry told Dombrowski of his first impression.
Only one thought nagged the Boston brass: Was he too confident? One answer stood out as especially troubling. They asked Cora how he would handle reducing a star’s playing time. He dismissed the problem as “no problem at all.” He would simply put the best team on the field.
“We thought he aced everything but that,” says one team source. “I’ve seen clubhouses torn apart when a star player gets benched and becomes a part-time player. Frankly, his answer came across as naive.”
Two months into the season, the Red Sox needed a roster spot for second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who was returning from the disabled list. Cora advised Dombrowski to cut the team’s star first baseman, Hanley Ramirez, who still was owed $15.5 million this year. Ramirez had seen fewer at bats because of the free-agent signing of DH-outfielder J.D. Martinez and the re-signing of first baseman Mitch Moreland and was hitting .254 with little power. He was getting beat by velocity, indicative of a slow bat.
“Hanley needs to play every day to hit,” Cora says. “He wasn’t going to hit in a part-time role. People said it was about the money. That wasn’t it at all. It was a baseball move.”
There was one other benefit to cutting Ramirez, at 34 the most senior member of the team: His strong personality would be gone from the clubhouse, which would allow Martinez and outfielder Mookie Betts to emerge and flourish as leaders. Cora knew that with Ramirez gone, this would be their team. “Well,” the team source says, “I guess he did ace the entire test.”
Said Porcello, “You can see more than with any other team the unselfishness and the cohesiveness of this team. And A.C. sets the tone.”
Before Game 2, Holt walked into the formal media interview, home to clichés and boilerplate answers, and dropped an actual hot take when somebody asked him about the difference between Farrell and Cora.
“For me personally it’s communication,” Holt said. “Being able to know what’s going on, what’s going through his head, when we’re playing, when we’re not playing, certain situations where we might come in during a game. It just makes it so much easier as team to go out and perform. There wasn’t a whole lot of communication in the past.
“Not being too far removed from playing himself, he understands the game is hard. And he believes in us. I just think the overall vibe that he brings to the team, to the clubhouse, is so positive that it’s easy for us to go out and kind of do what we’ve been doing.”
Back in the early 19th century, when the world was a much less connected place and locales and creatures considered exotic were far more numerous, Americans said upon witnessing the extraordinary, “I have seen the elephant.” The phrase probably dates to the arrival of the first elephant on U.S. soil, around 1796. It was exhibited on Broadway in New York City. To see the elephant in this ever-shrinking world—a world with probes speeding past Jupiter, a map of the human genome, cars that park themselves and cloned sheep—requires- a more stringent definition of exotic. And moments of awe in the World Series have become equally rare.
Then Game 3 happened at Chavez Ravine. It was not just the longest postseason game ever played. It was as phenomenal as a six-ton pachyderm in New York in 1796.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said L.A. first baseman David Freese, “and that’s because nobody walking this Earth has seen anything like that.”
The detritus of the struggle astounded: 561 pitches, 440 minutes, 336 baseballs, 125 foul balls, 46 players, 34 strikeouts, 18 pitchers and two seventh-inning stretches, the second of which occurred in the 14th. The game finally ended at 12:30 a.m. PDT when Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy cracked a leadoff homer as an orange moon hung over the San Gabriel Mountains like a child’s bedside nightlight. Barry Levinson never did it better.
Midnight Muncy’s blast came off Eovaldi, the presumptive Game 4 starter who was rovering for a third straight game. Cora managed the game like a stunt driver, aggressive at every turn, burning through pitchers like oil, making onlookers gasp at where he might be headed. He used every player on his roster except Sale and Drew Pomeranz. He brought Eovaldi into the game in the 12th.
“Every inning I’d go back on the field and think, Well, he’s done,” Holt recalls. “And every inning he’d go back out there. Four, five, six innings. . . . It was amazing.”
“My God, just an animal,” Freese said. “You start thinking about [Madison] Bumgarner, and what he did in 2014. I know I did. Very few guys can pull that off. What an arm.”
It marked the only time in the past 45 years that a relief pitcher threw six innings on one day’s rest in a World Series game. The feat was made more remarkable by Eovaldi’s injury history. He underwent one Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in high school and a second in 2016, along with a repair of his flexor tendon. His recovery from the operations was extended in March after the discovery of loose bodies in the elbow. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues until May. At 28, he is eligible for free agency, and his first big contract, this offseason.
And yet there he was, throwing 97 pitches in his third relief appearance in four days. The Dodgers were amazed, and not necessarily in admiration.
“We don’t do that over here to our guys,” one Dodger decision-maker said. Indeed, Los Angeles made Pedro Baez unavailable in Game 4 after he pitched in each of the first three games. Without Baez, every one of the six relievers Roberts brought into the game gave up a run – the first time such a long run of decisions ever turned so badly in a World Series game.
Conversely, a Red Sox staffer, noting Baez’s day off, remarked, “They had Baez down? In the World Series? When our guys want to come out of the bullpen every day?”
Eovaldi, who is 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, is noted around the Red Sox as one of the strongest players on the team. “A beast,” Porcello called him. “He warms up with 225 pound squats.”
“There’s nobody in baseball who can throw a baseball like Nathan,” Holt says. “He throws 101 mph heaters, 97 mph cutters, splits that fall off the table and slow hooks. The guy is a freak. Nobody else can do all those things.”
In Game 3, Eovaldi threw 18 pitches at 99 or harder and 16 at 82 or slower. Cora said Eovaldi was pitching his last inning when Muncy pounded a 90 mph cutter.
Eovaldi put his head down and marched off the field, joining Bill Bevens of the 1947 Yankees as the most gallant losers in World Series history. Bevens lost a no-hitter and the game to the Brooklyn Dodgers with two outs in the ninth. The entire Red Sox team waited for Eovaldi at the dugout steps. The first to greet him, even before he reached the steps, was 33-year-old Price, who pounded Eovaldi on the chest and back in appreciation. Cora was next. So gallant had Eovaldi been that it seemed he had been the one to hit the walk-off homer.
Price would not leave Eovaldi’s side. He joined him in the training room, where he sat with him as Eovaldi had his arm “flushed” of inflammation by a trainer as part of his normal postgame recovery. He sat next to him on the team bus back to the Pasadena hotel. The next day Price even took adjoining soaks with Eovaldi in the hot and cold tubs.
“Nobody’s ever done anything like that for me,” Eovaldi says. “He’s a great teammate.”
No team ever invested more in a World Series loss than did the Red Sox in Game 3. It had all the marks of a devastating defeat, one that had cut their Series lead to 2–1 and had given L.A. an apparent edge in Game 4, since Price and Eovaldi had just pitched. Nobody knew who was starting Game 4 for Boston 16 hours later. (At 2:30 a.m., Cora decided on Rodriguez.) Most people saw a beaten team. Cora saw a proud one, which is why he called the team meeting.
“Listen up!” he said. Players were still mostly in their soiled, heavy uniforms. Some peeled off sweatshirts or tape from their wrists. Some sat at their lockers.
“We just played one of the greatest games in World Series history. Red Sox … Dodgers … Dodger Stadium … World Series … And the way you competed is something all of us should be very proud of. This is a great team. This was a great game. And you guys proved it tonight. And Nathan … ”
Cora then singled out Eovaldi, praising him for his effort and unselfishness. When Cora was done, the room burst into a standing ovation.
“There were tears,” Holt says. Porcello was one of those crying.
And then one by one, every player, coach and staff member lined up to take turns hugging Eovaldi—and not one of those quick, “Good game, bro” hugs.
“I’m talking like a minute hug each,” Porcello says. “What Nathan did was the epitome of what our team is about. Every player does whatever he can to try to help the team win. This is what sports should be about. It’s about everybody pulling together.
“We just lost a World Series game in 18 innings. But after that [meeting], it didn’t feel like we lost. It felt like we won.”
A short while later, as Cora unwound from the game, he looked up to see a line outside his office. There stood Price, Porcello and Sale, whose combined contracts are worth $332 million. They all told him they were ready to pitch the next game.
The room service fiasco turned into a blessing. Just hours after the Game 3 defeat, the Red Sox gathered for a team breakfast, complete with families. The room was filled with tables of 10, with plenty of space for kids to run around. The mood was relaxed. It was the best sort of recovery from the loss.
It was at 8:30, just eight hours after he threw the last pitch to Muncy, that Eovaldi, holding his four-year-old son, Jace, whose name is stitched into his glove, walked into the room and found Cora.
“I’m good to go tonight,” he told his manager.
Victory number 118 did not require a Rover—just a comeback from a 4–0 deficit in the seventh inning. Only four other teams had ever rallied from that far down that late into a World Series game.
The game began to cascade for the Dodgers when manager Dave Roberts jogged to the mound with one on and one out in the seventh to give his starter, lefthander Rich Hill, a pep talk. Hill had his back to Roberts, but when he turned and saw his manager approaching, he handed the baseball to him, thinking Roberts was there to replace him with a reliever. Roberts had no choice then but to take him out, after which Boston pounded out seven hits including a tying homer to left center and a three-run double by first baseman Steve Pearce.
Victory number 119 was thorough. Pearce, just the third batter of the game, put the Red Sox ahead to stay with a two-run shot off the still diminished version of Kershaw, who became the first pitcher to lose a fourth elimination game. Pearce added the last run, too, with a solo blast. He had four hits and seven RBIs in his last six at bats to win the MVP award.
This win seemed as sturdy and seaworthy as the duck boats that will carry the Red Sox around Boston for a fourth championship parade since 2004. Price—yes, again—was superb in Game 5, as was Joe Kelly behind him. And at various points, Eovaldi, on one day of rest after his 97-pitch marathon, and Sale, despite his shoulder barking for two months, were warming up in the bullpen. Cora gave the ninth to Sale, who supplied the last brick in the wall by striking out three straight Dodgers.
About 15 minutes later, on the field, Porcello was crying again. During the last week of the season Porcello, Moreland, Price and second baseman Ian Kinsler—all of whom had been to the World Series with other teams and lost—made a vow over “three, four, five, 13 beers,” Porcello said, “that we would do everything we could to win it this time. I can’t hold back the tears. I apologize. This . . . it’s beautiful.”
Meanwhile, with slightly less gravitas, Holt was confirming his newly acquired status as future Third Inning Legend. “I’ll be up there in the box and wave to the crowd,” he said. “I’ll be coming back for years.”
Such status is reserved for all who contributed to the 119. Every baseball season crowns a champion, but not every champion is so exalted. These Red Sox became legends not just for how they won but also for how they lost. Game 3 is an all-time point of reference for the boundlessness of baseball, a lesson that the horizon of a game can stretch even farther than we imagine as long as effort and will remain. The valiance of Eovaldi rises above all the striving. The appreciation and love of his teammates in the face of defeat will endure with it.
In 1973, upon being beaten by Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali said, “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing to do is do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
The Red Sox lost right. They lost honorably. They lost together, and so it was that they could win together. The lowest ebb was the turn of the tide.
Article written by Tom Verducci #SportsIllustrated
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