A lot went right for the Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Championship series, but it’s what didn’t happen that could help them moving forward.
Boston’s 12-3 beatdown of the Houston Astros on Monday night paid immediate dividends, giving the Sox a 2-1 series lead in the ALCS. And by building — and holding — another huge lead early in the game, Alex Cora is sitting pretty when it comes to his pitching plan for Game 4.
Between the offensive explosion and steady pitching from Eduardo Rodriguez, Cora and the Red Sox didn’t have to burn any of their top bullpen arms — no disrespect to the likes of Hansel Robles, Martín Pérez and Hirokazu Sawamura, of course. Because Rodriguez gave the Sox six good innings and departed with a massive lead, Cora can do just about anything he wants with his pitching in Game 4, starting with the starter, Nick Pivetta.
Not having to use Pivetta in Game 3 gives him a chance to start Tuesday night on regular rest. Meanwhile, Zack Greinke will be brought out of mothballs to take the bump for the Astros. Advantage, seemingly Boston, barring Greinke — on a 40-pitch count — turning back the clock for a few innings.
In a perfect world, here’s one way in which the Red Sox pitching could play out in Game 4:
Pivetta will take the ball for his first career postseason start, and if he can come anywhere close to replicating his ALDS relief performances, the Sox will be in business. Pivetta allowed three runs in 8 2/3 innings, including a brilliant four-inning showing in Boston’s extra-inning Game 3 win. And when it comes to the Astros setting their lineup, Pivetta’s splits were near-identical versus right-handers and left-handers, which bodes well for matching up later in the game.
If Pivetta falters early, Cora could use someone like Josh Taylor or Ryan Brasier to bridge the gap to Tanner Houck. If Pivetta pitches well, things really fall into place nicely. Don’t expect a deep outing for Pivetta regardless. Opposing hitters had a 1.011 OPS against the righty in their third trip through the order. The Red Sox would gladly sign up for five innings from Pivetta.
If Pivetta can give them that likely means Boston is in a very good spot, either leading or in a tight game. Assuming they’re not up (or down) eight, this feels like a spot to go back to Tanner Houck. He certainly struggled in Game 1, but he’s been strong down the stretch otherwise, and he could be a perfect two-inning bridge to the back end of the bullpen.
Obviously, this is where strategy comes into place. The best-case outcome is Houck gets them through the seventh, and Boston has the lead. If that’s the case, could we see Nathan Eovaldi to start the eighth inning? Cora said Monday he’d be available in Game 3, and a Tuesday night appearance actually makes more sense as he’d typically be throwing a bullpen ahead of a Game 6 start Friday night anyway.
Chances are, it won’t be that clean, but Cora has everyone available. If there’s a lefty-heavy spot in Houston’s lineup, it could be Taylor. Braiser is an option, too, as is Adam Ottavino. Again, this is where that flexibility really comes in handy. Cora could also get super-aggressive and play the Garrett Whitlock card, if the game hangs in the balance.
At this point, Whitlock feels like the de facto closer. Going back to our best-case outcome, Pivetta to Houck to Eovaldi to Whitlock sure sounds like a recipe for success. Or if Cora can maneuver those middle to late innings without having to use Whitlock, he could save him for the ninth in a traditional save situation.
There’s also this idea: If the Red Sox don’t want to use Eovaldi in the middle of an inning, they could always bring in Whitlock earlier — in the seventh or eighth to stop a rally — and then save Eovaldi to start the ninth if the Red Sox are holding a lead.
The nature of baseball seems to suggest it won’t work out this clean for the Red Sox, but Boston has to feel good knowing it has all kinds of options to throw at Houston in Game 4. Expect Cora to manage this game like the series is on the line.
Winning Tuesday means a fully rested Chris Sale gets the ball in Game 5 on Wednesday, the first of three chances to close out the series and win the pennant for Cora’s club.