Red Sox survive near-meltdown by closer Craig Kimbrel in ALCS Game 4

BOSTON, MA - JULY 11: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after walking in a run in the eighth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park on July 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JULY 11: Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after walking in a run in the eighth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park on July 11, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox hung on to win Game 4 of the ALCS in Houston despite the continued struggles of flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel.

The postseason is the time to get unconventional. If you need to turn to your closer in the eighth inning with the top of the opposing lineup looming, so be it. With the Boston Red Sox clinging to a three-run lead late in Game 4 of the ALCS, sending in Craig Kimbrel to face the most dangerous hitters in the Houston Astros lineup instead of holding him for the glamorous save opportunity was the right move.

Sticking with Kimbrel as he was unraveling before our eyes was a questionable decision that nearly swung this series.

Kimbrel wasn’t sharp from the start, allowing a base hit on a fastball right down the middle on the first pitch he threw to No. 9 hitter Tony Kemp. Fortunately, Kemp was thrown out at second when he boldly tested the arm of Mookie Betts trying to stretch his hit into a double.

Alex Bregman was hit by a pitch after falling behind in the count 0-2 and George Springer followed with a double to put two in scoring position. A Jose Altuve groundout brought Springer home, charging Kimbrel with the only run he allowed in the game.

He’s lucky that’s the only damage that was done. Had Kemp not been thrown out at second he would have scored on the Springer double. Their lead would have been cut down to one in the inning with the potential for more Houston runs if they had an extra out to work with. Teams should know by now not to run on the arm of Betts. The Red Sox got lucky that Kemp didn’t pay attention to that scouting report.

Kimbrel escaped the inning with a strikeout of Marwin Gonzalez. His night should have ended there with David Price warming in the bullpen. Kimbrel only threw 14 pitches in the eighth inning but many of them were high-stress pitches once he got into trouble. The closer hadn’t been asked to get more than four outs all season and he’s had a few shaky moments when tasked with going beyond the standard three out save scenario. Were they really trusting him to get the final six outs? If the expectation was that Price would need to take over in the ninth, wouldn’t you want him coming into a clean inning?

Manager Alex Cora stuck with Kimbrel through the ninth, allowing his closer to work through his command issues as he was imploding on the mound.

Kimbrel got Yuli Gurriel to pop out to second base to lead off the ninth but walked three of the next four batters to load the bases for Bregman with two outs. It’s inexcusable to walk the No. 9 hitter in that spot to give an MVP candidate the opportunity to win the game with one swing.

Why wasn’t Price brought in to face the left-handed Kemp in that spot? Asking a starting pitcher to enter a game with the tying run on base is risky but so was sticking with Kimbrel when he seemed incapable of throwing strikes. Perhaps Cora assumed the Astros would counter by pinch-hitting with Evan Gattis, although he’s only 1-for-7 in his career against Price.

A tiring Kimbrel in full meltdown mode stayed in to face the hottest hitter in the game this postseason. Bregman lined the first pitch he saw to left, only for a diving Andrew Benintendi to save the day with a spectacular catch to end the game.

If Benny doesn’t dive then that ball falls in front of him, allowing at least one run to score. Possibly two to tie the game with the runners off on contact. If he dives and the ball gets by him, it’s game over. Houston would walk off with a win if his outstretched glove came up short. It was a gutsy decision to fly head first toward the sinking liner but it paid off.

Kimbrel escaped the jam by the skin of his teeth, with a tip of the cap to his courageous outfielder. Just because it worked, doesn’t necessarily mean it was the right decision. Kimbrel threw 35 pitches in the game, putting his availability for Game 5 in doubt.

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Sticking with Kimbrel also means Price’s effort to warm up in the bullpen was wasted. Chris Sale‘s start has been pushed back to Game 6 after he spent the weekend hospitalized with a stomach illness. Boston will now be counting on Price to start Game 5 on three days rest one night after throwing with maximum effort in preparation to enter a game he ultimately wasn’t used in.

The toll of those warmup pitches could be felt on Price’s arm tonight, potentially limiting how deep he can go in Game 5. At least if Price pitched the ninth inning it would be clear that another direction would be required to start the next game. Perhaps a bullpen game where Price could still be used for a couple of innings without bearing the burden of expecting a starter’s workload.

Cora did what he felt was best to survive Game 4 and it worked. While it may hinder their chances in the next game, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series gives them a margin for error. If they can’t close out the series tonight, the Red Sox will get two more chances to end it in Boston with Sale on the hill for one of them.

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We’ll have nothing to complain about so long as the Red Sox advance to the World Series but Kimbrel’s usage the rest of the postseason warrants cautious monitoring. Cora clearly has faith in his closer. Perhaps too much faith.