Given the way Craig Kimbrel’s postseason had gone, the closer was among the last pitchers – maybe the last one – Red Sox fans wanted to see on the mound in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Houston’s Minute Maid Park on Thursday night.
The righthander, after all, nearly blew Game 4 of the Division Series clincher at the Stadium against the Yankees, part of a string of four straight games in this postseason in which he had allowed at least one run.
That included nearly blowing an 8-5 lead the night before. The Red Sox won, 8-6, to take a 3-1 lead in the series, but on the final play of the game, leftfielder Andrew Benintendi had to make a game-saving diving catch with the bases loaded on a sinking liner by Alex Bregman.
As Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts put it afterward: “If he misses that ball, it’s game over.”
Still, Kimbrel arrived at the ballpark Thursday knowing that if a similar situation arose that night in Game 5, he’d get the ball again, the result of a postgame conversation he had late Wednesday with first-year manager Alex Cora.
“I said to him last night, ‘Thank you for trusting me and letting me get out of that inning,’ ” Kimbrel recalledThursday night. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re my guy and we’re going to give you the ball.’ ”
And so, even after Nathan Eovaldi retired four of five batters in innings seven and eight to keep the Red Sox ahead 4-1 in Game 5 -- and those on social media seemed in agreement on a “leave Eovaldi in!” strategy -- Cora called for Kimbrel.
Though he walked a batter, Kimbrel easily had his best outing of the playoffs, striking out two in a scoreless ninth to earn the save as the Red Sox won their 14th American League pennant. Boston will face the Los Angeles Dodgers — who beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-1, in NLCS Game 7 on Saturday night — in the World Series, which begins Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
“You don’t ever want to have doubt,” a thoroughly-doused-in-champagne Kimbrel said during Thursday’s clubhouse celebration. “For him to stick with me, telling me he’s confident in me, meant a lot.”
But it’s also the way Cora, who turned 43 on Thursday, has handled his team from Day 1.
Pretty much every manager or coach expresses public belief in their players and sticking with them, but it doesn’t always show up in the games.
Righty reliever Matt Barnes had his share of difficulties during the regular season, but Cora plugged him into critical situations from the start of the playoffs. He was rewarded with six straight scoreless appearances before Barnes allowed what turned out to be a fairly meaningless solo homer by Marwin Gonzalez with two outs in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 5.
“AC’s the best, he really is,” Barnes said afterward, according to The Boston Globe. “He knows exactly what he’s doing and puts us in a position to succeed. It’s all working out great. He’s done the right thing all year long, he really has. It’s an honor to play for the guy.”
David Price, whose postseason struggles dogged him for years – right up until his stellar nine-strikeout, no-walk performance in six shutout innings in ALCS Game 5 – is in that category. Before Price was shelled in ALDS Game 2 against the Yankees and in the minutes after that game, Cora would hardly acknowledge his October difficulties. To the manager, a brilliant outing was imminent -- and on Thursday night, it happened.
“I don't want it to be a comparison between manager John and AC, and it's not,” Price said, referencing former Red Sox manager John Farrell, who was replaced by Cora after last season. “But AC has been huge for us all year long. Not that John wasn't huge or that John is not a good manager or whatever it is. You know, AC just fits this group really well. And he did it before our first day in spring training, just getting guys together, whether it's through text messages and phone calls and going out to lunch in January. Just getting everybody on the same page and making sure everybody has that same one common goal. He's been phenomenal for us.”