Late last Monday night, J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox were still basking in the glow of an ALDS clincher, celebrating the back-to-back Fenway wins that had eliminated the American League’s winningest team and completed a swift and stunning turnaround from the series’ opening game. It feels like ancient history now, when the Sox were shut out in Tampa by the 100-win Rays.
In a moment of contemplation about how his team had managed such a dramatic reversal of fortune, Martinez reframed the outcome in a way that seemed odd at the time, but makes so much sense now.
“You guys look at it as a shutout,” he said on the field at Fenway, as if there was any other way to look at a game in which the Red Sox scored zero runs. “But we were super confident about it. We all hit the ball hard. Well, I didn’t, because I didn’t play. But they hit the ball hard. We kept talking about that, like, ‘Dude, the ball just didn’t bounce our way.’ ”
His message: Stay the course. The outcome was not what the Sox envisioned, but their approach was not the problem. So just stick with that approach, and the results are bound to change. The formula worked against Tampa. Is it on the way to doing the same against Houston? Sure feels that way as the Sox head home to Boston barely needing a plane, their bounce-back, 9-5 win Saturday night knotting the ALCS at a game apiece, putting them firmly in the driver’s seat with the next three games at home.
And so did Martinez reveal yet another of the many crucial puzzle pieces that have found their way into this Red Sox’ playoff run. Even when an ankle injury kept him out of that initial division series game in Florida, he could see all the things that were going right. The Sox lost another series opener, but again, Martinez came out of the game focused more on the solid contact he was seeing from his fellow hitters than he did on the long, slow parade of relievers who couldn’t hold down an early lead.
He believed there was a better night in store.
And on Saturday night, he proved it. With his own grand slam in the first inning, with a second grand slam from Rafael Devers in the second inning, and with yet another home run from the unstoppable Kiké Hernández, the Red Sox completed their stated Houston goal. Now, they are flying on their own steam, a heady brand of confidence that springs from this well of belief that even when they are down, they are never out.
“I think when we have this humble approach that we’re not trying to do too much, then big things happen,” manager Alex Cora said. “And J.D., that was great to see going the other way. Rafi, not trying to do too much and hitting the grand slam and so on and so on. It’s a very good approach right now. We’re not getting greedy. Like I said a few days ago, it’s not about hitting 30 home runs or driving [in] 100 runs. It’s about winning four games against the Astros, so now we got one, and now we go to Fenway.”
To Fenway, where the home crowds have been as electric as any in recent memory, where the old building has been touched to its core by post-pandemic fans so grateful to be back along for the ride and players so grateful to have them there. Together they have created a palpable home-field advantage, one that backs a hometown team fazed by seemingly nothing.
Not the loss in Game 1. Not the slow-working pitches of starter Luis Garcia, who left the game in the second inning with knee discomfort but who had made his one-plus inning of work last nearly an hour. Not the ridiculously long warm-up by Garcia’s replacement Jake Odorizzi, a converted starter who came into the game and took his sweet time getting ready to pitch. Not the concurrent, ridiculously long wait for Nate Eovaldi, who could do nothing but wait for 41 minutes between the first and second innings while the Astros got themselves sorted out.
Bother Eovaldi? Not a chance. He answered with an 11-pitch inning, a “good morning, good afternoon, good night” 1-2-3 shutdown of the vaunted Astros lineup. And as if to underscore his ongoing reputation for postseason dominance, he did it again in the third.
“I don’t think our focus was going to be — there was no way today the way they came to the ballpark, the way they talked today in the meeting, the way they went about their business, it really didn’t matter if it was an hour delay or whatever,” Cora said. “We were locked in.
“Obviously, [Friday] was disappointing, but at the same time, understanding what we wanted to do and go home and have three guaranteed games at Fenway, it really didn’t matter.”
While Eovaldi’s concentration across 5⅓ innings of three-run ball was more than enough to anchor the win, the combination of Adam Ottavino and Garrett Whitlock was just as impressive across the next 2⅔ shutout innings, with Whitlock particularly strong.
Such is the story with these Red Sox — unlikely heroes everywhere. Whitlock, the Rule 5 castoff from the Yankees. Ottavino, another former Yankee. Kyle Schwarber, the midseason addition who seems to possess perfect Red Sox energy. Hernández, who might consider popping over to Foxborough to help out the Patriots this weekend or lacing up some skates and joining the Bruins, too, since he’s clearly solved baseball. Alex Verdugo, the principal piece of the heartbreaking Mookie Betts trade, who continues to prove why the Sox wanted him.
Combine that with small moments of smart baseball — like the way Devers worked out of an 0-and-2 count to get on base ahead of Martinez’s slam, the way he continues to fight off arm soreness and produce at the plate, the way Xander Bogaerts or Christian Arroyo find themselves perfectly positioned in the infield to make tough plays, the way Schwarber has improved so much defensively around first — and this magic carpet ride continues.