Red Sox turning point in gut-punch loss was trusting Darwinzon Hernandez
Darwinzon Hernandez couldn’t hold a lead for the Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox were four outs away from evening a pivotal series with the New York Yankees. Moments later they found themselves on the verge of losing their grip on the top Wild Card spot.
Tanner Houck retired the first two batters he faced in the eighth inning but was given the hook after walking a pair in a one-run game. Manager Alex Cora signaled for lefty Darwinzon Hernandez out of the bullpen to face the left-handed Anthony Rizzo. The result wasn’t what the manager had hoped for, although we can’t exactly say it wasn’t somewhat predictable.
Hernandez fell behind 3-1 in the count to Rizzo before hitting him with his fifth pitch to load the bases. It’s the fifth time this season that Hernandez has hit a batter despite that he’s logged fewer than 40 innings. He also owns an alarming 6.8 BB/9 that is somehow the best of his career while ranking third-worst among American League relievers (minimum 30 innings pitched).
After plunking the previous batter and knowing his proclivity for issuing free passes, Hernandez had to be careful with Giancarlo Stanton at the plate and no empty base to put him on. Perhaps he was too careful. His first pitch was a meatball down the center of the plate which Stanton hammered 452 feet to left field for the game-winning grand slam.
To say that Hernandez is wild would be an understatement, which makes the decision to turn to him with the game on the line a bit questionable. Josh Taylor is the lefty Cora would typically count on for this spot but he was unavailable due to a back issue that will require an MRI, according to MassLive’s Christopher Smith.
Hernandez has been dominant against lefties in his young career, although he’s actually been slightly worse against them this season (.204/.362/.370). If the Red Sox wanted a lefty and Taylor wasn’t an option, the choices boiled down to Hernandez and Austin Davis, who has been even better against left-handed batters (.130/.255/.261) and hasn’t allowed a run this month. Davis doesn’t have much of a track record though, so Cora apparently trusts the guy who has been here longer.
Are we sure that summoning a southpaw was the right move to begin with? Rizzo has been an extreme reverse splits hitter this year, batting .326/.405/.500 against lefties compared to .218/.324/.411 against right-handed pitchers.
MLB’s three-batter rule prevented the Red Sox from making another pitching change when Hernandez failed to retire Rizzo. Cora put too much stock in Hernandez’s ability to retire a lefty, forcing him to stick with him against Stanton, who historically has crushed lefties.
This is the type of situation where the Red Sox desperately miss Garrett Whitlock. The rookie could have bailed them out of that eighth inning before they were ever in danger. He isn’t expected to be sidelined much longer with a right pectoral strain but his absence in this series is proving costly.
Considering Rizzo’s reverse splits and with Stanton looming on deck, the Red Sox should have turned to Adam Ottavino or Garrett Richards in that spot. Both right-handers have proven capable in high-leverage situations. Trusting a young lefty with control issues instead was a bold choice that backfired.
The Red Sox are now tied with the Yankees for the top Wild Card spot with both teams holding a two-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. Boston owns the tiebreaker over both clubs, meaning if they remain tied with the Yankees then the Wild Card game would be held at Fenway. The Red Sox have a cupcake schedule to finish the season, wrapping up against the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Blue Jays face each other next week, ensuring one of those teams will lose at least two more games.
Boston remains in strong position to secure a Wild Card spot but their chance to run away with the top position has evaporated. Sunday’s series finale with the Yankees is essentially a must-win. Not because they will miss the playoffs if they lose this game, but because they will lose any momentum and confidence they would have carried with them into a potential Wild Card game with their biggest rival.