Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Boston comes up big when things are looking bleak
BY THE organization's own recent standards, the Red Sox weren't a team that hit a lot of home runs for much of this season.
They finished with 178, which ranked fifth in the American League, but that was buoyed by the 39 they hit in September and the eight they hit on a single night against Detroit. But through 140 games they'd gone deep 140 times, and no Boston team has slugged as few as a homer per game since Butch Hobson's underwhelming bunch in 1993.
In the postseason, the homers have — naturally, given the quality of the competition standing on the mound — been even fewer and farther between. During the regular season, the Sox averaged a homer every 31.7 at-bats; this postseason it's been every 54.1 at-bats.
But, as they say, timing is everything.
When the Cardinals pitched around David Ortiz in the sixth inning of a tie game Sunday night — despite the fact that Dustin Pedroia already occupied first base — and Jonny Gomes sent a 387-foot blast to the visitors' bullpen, the emergency left fielder not only gave Boston a 4-1 lead but also presented the latest example of the decisive weapon the long ball has been for the Sox during this postseason.
The simplest way to put it is this: In these playoffs, the Red Sox are 7-1 when they homer in a game; they're 3-4 when they don't.
And looking at those blasts a little bit more closely, Baseball Reference's win expectancy calculations show that Boston's home runs haven't merely been part of those victories; they've been among the primary reasons why the club is just one triumph away from celebrating a World Series championship.
The calculations aim to figure out how much the result of each play in a game changes a team's probability of winning that contest, based on the score and the situation at the point the play begins and when the play ends.
For example, Gomes' clout Sunday night increased the Red Sox's probability of winning from 49 percent to 87 percent. In one mighty swing, he improved his team's chance of winning by 38 percent.
And that's been the way these Sox have been getting it done of late. Through Game 4 of the World Series, the Sox hadnotched six hits that improved their win expectancy by at least 20 percent — and five of those hits were homers. Meanwhile, four hits had improved their likelihood by at least 33 percent.
Five of their nine blasts this postseason have taken the Sox from a probability of 50-50 or worse to a point where they were favored. One rather famously tied the game — Ortiz's Game 2 grand slam in the ALCS — while Gomes' shot Sunday was the sixth that has given the Sox the lead. A third, homer, Mike Napoli's shot off Justin Verlander, provided the only scoring in Game 3 of the ALCS.
Conversely, only two of their homers have affected the Sox' win probability by less than 5 percent. In both of those cases, the homers came in the late innings during an at-bat Boston began with a 94 percent likelihood of winning anyway. And the only time they've lost when homering was Game 2 of this series against St. Louis, when the Cardinals used Boston's defensive sloppiness to come back against its bullpen.
Maybe it's a coincidence. But maybe, particularly in conjunction with the characteristics this team has shown all year, it's not. All year this team has been the type that has thrived in the moment, that has battled resiliently. It's a team that has been defined by its relentlessness, its flair for the dramatic and its willingness to fight. It's a team that hasn't hit a ton of home runs, but when it's been pushed up against the wall, it's come out swinging.
And, this postseason, swinging for the fences.
A neat sidelight to Gomes' memorable shot on Sunday night was that it came in a half-inning that began with baseball pausing the game to "stand up to cancer," an effort that included the players joining with people throughout the stadium in holding placards that featured the names of people who are fighting (or have fought) cancer.
Gomes held two. One was for his late high school coach, Bob Leslie, and the other was for Brady Wein, a young fan who has leukemia, and a piece of Gomes' heart.
"About 4½ years old, and talk about battle tested," Gomes said. "This little kid, he comes out to the ballpark every once in a while, and it was pretty special to be able to do that top of the sixth. It really adds to the fairy tale that it was for me today."
With Ortiz hitting .727 in the series, and the Cardinals demonstrating a willingness to pitch around him in Game 4, John Farrell took the opportunity created when Shane Victorino missed a second straight start with an ailing back and shuffled his lineup a little in an effort to provide Ortiz more protection.Dustin Pedroia moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order, with Ortiz third and followed by Gomes and Daniel Nava, each of whom had been productive while the series was in St. Louis.
"I feel like we need to lengthen out the lineup behind David a little bit more than maybe we've been doing," the manager told reporters before the game, when he also revealed that Clay Buchholz is preparing to be available if the club needs him in a potential Game 7.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals made an aggressive tweak to their lineup, putting the ailing Allen Craig at first base a day after he limped to the plate for a pinch-hitting appearance in the ninth. One of the Cards' best hitters, Craig batted sixth.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.