The Red Sox ran into a double play that halted a late rally in Game 6
Alex Verdugo was given the green light with the intention of staying out of a double play. Instead, he ended up running right into one that crushed any momentum the Boston Red Sox were building toward a late rally in Game 6 of the ALCS.
Trailing by two in the seventh inning, the Red Sox staged what would be their best chance at a comeback against a Houston Astros staff that had dominated them throughout the game. J.D. Martinez drew a one-out walk against reliever Kendall Graveman and Verdugo moved him over to third by slapping a single down the right field line. It was the first time in the game that Boston had multiple runners on the base paths and the only instance where they had a runner on third with less than two outs.
Manager Alex Cora turned to his bench to send Travis Shaw to pinch-hit for Christian Arroyo. Cora wanted a left-handed bat against Graveman, who dominated right-handed hitters by holding them to a .177 average and .348 OPS but was somewhat vulnerable to lefties (.253 average, .748 OPS). Shaw also has significantly more pop in his bat than the light-hitting Arroyo, presenting a greater opportunity to give the Red Sox their first lead with one swing.
Getting the ball in the air was no easy task against Graveman, who threw a sinker on 62.9% of his pitches during the regular season. His 54.9 ground ball percentage was the ninth-highest among American League relievers.
A ground ball pitcher and a slow runner at the plate is a recipe for grounding into a double play. With that in mind, Cora gave Verdugo the signal to take off on a 3-2 pitch. Shaw swung through a 95 mph fastball for strike three. Astros catcher Martin Maldonado fired a laser to second base that beat Verdugo to the bag. Strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play to end the inning.
The manager would have to face some questions about this pivotal point in the game and Cora had an answer for why he sent Verdugo, according to MassLive’s Christopher Smith.
"“I just bet on my players,” Cora explained. “3-2 count. We put the ball in play against a sinkerballer, we score one. He (Maldonado) threw like a 1.4 to second, whatever he did, and we didn’t make contact, and he got thrown out. But that’s one of those that it’s a 3-2 count with a sinkerballer. We were trying to score one. … Their catcher just came out shooting and he made a perfect throw.”"
Verdugo is certainly no sloth on the bases but he doesn’t exactly have blazing speed either. He stole a career-high six bases this year on eight attempts. He can get a bit too aggressive on the base paths but that wasn’t the case here with his manager giving him his blessing to go.
Verdugo isn’t one you would expect to be sent on a straight steal in this situation. If he planned on stealing second, he never hinted at it until the count was full. He took a relatively short lead off first base and didn’t get a great jump. This didn’t appear to be a stolen base attempt. It was a botched hit-and-run.
That strategy would make sense, especially against a ground ball pitcher. If Shaw put the ball in play on the ground, the Astros could easily turn two the old fashioned way to end the inning. By sending Verdugo, he has a greater chance of reaching second safely, leaving the Astros with only the option of throwing Shaw out at first. Martinez would trot home from third, putting the Red Sox on the board. Clearly, they would prefer the three-run homer but at least Boston would have come away with something if Shaw couldn’t get the ball in the air.
Unfortunately, Shaw couldn’t put the ball in play at all. The outcome isn’t entirely unexpected from a hitter with a 27.2 K% this season.
Putting the contact play on with a hitter who struggles to make contact isn’t ideal but Cora didn’t have appealing alternatives. The hit-and-run always carries some risk but it was the right call in this situation. The Red Sox simply didn’t have the right options on their bench to execute it.
Christian Vazquez can typically be counted on to put the ball in play but he had already entered the game during the previous inning after Danny Santana pinch-hit for Kevin Plawecki. Bobby Dalbec was the only other available option and his staggering 34.4 K% makes him the worst possible choice for a contact play.
Cora could have stuck with Arroyo if he planned on using the hit-and-run strategy but his 24.3 K% is only a moderate improvement over Shaw and he lacks the game-changing home run power. Arroyo was 0-for-2 in the game and swung wildly at three pitches out of the zone to strike out in his previous at-bat. He’s also a right-handed hitter who is only productive against lefties, putting him on the wrong side of the splits against Graveman.
The blame was unfairly pinned on Verdugo by those who questioned why he was running but his manager’s comments clarify what the team was trying to do. They had the right idea, Shaw simply failed to make contact and Maldonado made a perfect throw to gun down Verdugo.
With a runner on third and less than two outs, it’s essential that the hitter at the plate puts the ball in play. The hit-and-run is sound strategy to avoid grounding into a double play. The Red Sox weren’t able to execute a fundamental part of baseball and it cost them their last viable chance to rally in an elimination game.