Sox by the Numbers: Making Sense of an Insane Ninth Inning

Well that was eventful! The Red Sox punched their ticket to the 2018 American League Championship Series with a harrowing 4-3 victory in the Bronx. It wouldn’t have been a Red Sox/Yankees series-clinching game without some late-inning near calamity and this game did not disappoint.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora pushed nearly every single button right in Games 3 and 4. Got a hunch hot-hitting Brock Holt should get into the starting lineup? He hits for the cycle. Nathan Eovaldi gets the nod as the Game 3 starter? He goes seven innings of one-run ball. Chris Sale in the eighth for Game Four? Three up, three down.

So even the most cynical of Sox fans could be excused for getting ready to celebrate as Cora handed the ball to Craig Kimbrel with a three-run lead against a quickly evaporating Yankees team that hadn’t had a base runner since the fifth inning Tuesday night.

Then all hell broke loose.

Kimbrel was as wild as a closer can be while still winning the game: he gave up two walks, a single and hit a guy with the bases loaded. He allowed four of the first five hitters to reach base. He threw four curve balls in the dirt. He came very close to giving up a game-ending grand slam that would have made Gary Sanchez’s name synonymous with Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone as Red Sox killers.

So what happened to one of the best closers in history in the last of the ninth?

First, Kimbrel was an All-Star again this year but he wasn’t unhittable. His season ERA was up 1.3 points from last year and he allowed a career-high seven home runs. He struck out 30 less hitters in just seven fewer innings and saw his K-rate drop by more than 10% while his walk rate more than doubled. He posted a 4.57 ERA in the second half.

So it’s not like Kimbrel was automatic this year, but Boston fans still had to feel good with their closer on the hill and a comfortable lead. That feeling lasted all of one batter. Kimbrel’s opening pitch sequence gave every Boston fan flashbacks to nightmares of years gone by.

Batter 1: Aaron Judge, four-pitch walk
Judge hit a middle-in curveball over the porch in right-centerfield off Kimbrel in the ninth inning of Game 1, but Kimbrel again tried to jam him inside with an assortment of curves and fastballs. Every single pitch misses, putting the Yankee leadoff man on for the first time in 12 innings. The four-pitch walk: another sign Kimbrel hasn’t been totally on this year. He walked seven men on four pitches during the regular season, more than the past two years combined. He also allowed his first ever four-pitch walk with the bases loaded in a July game against Texas. And so it began.

Batter 2: Didi Gregorius, single
Kimbrel gets a called struck on a curveball, then misses with a heater. Lack of fastball command was a recurring theme all inning long. Kimbrel would not throw a fastball for a strike until the sixth batter of the inning! Gregorius singles to right. Sox fans nibble their fingernails down to tiny stubs.

Batter 3: Giancarlo Stanton, strikeout
More than a few A-Rod comparisons have been made following the former NL MVP’s first dalliance with the postseason. Stanton hit .238 in the playoffs with just one extra base hit and four singles. He struck out four times in Game 1 and went 0-for-4 Tuesday night. With Kimbrel struggling to find the plate, Stanton swings at an 0-1 curveball in the dirt, then goes down swinging on another curve outside the zone on 1-2. Stanton’s chasing gives Boston a huge gift, because Kimbrel’s location struggles are about to get even worse…

Batter 4: Luke Voit, four-pitch walk
On the first pitch of the at-bat, Christian Vazquez makes the second of four blocks on balls in the dirt. It prevents runners from moving to second and third, but it becomes a moot point because Kimbrel issues another four-pitch walk, missing low and away on all four pitches to Voit. Craig Kimbrel has appeared in 554 Major League games, including the postseason. This is the first time he’s ever issued two four-pitch walks in any of them.

Batter 5: Neil Walker, hit by pitch
Panic Level 10. Kimbrel hits Walker on the foot with a curveball to score a run and make it 4-2 Red Sox. If just one or two things go differently in this inning, this could have been one of the most consequential hit by pitches in playoff history. As a Baseball Reference user discovered, it was the fifth highest leverage hit by pitch in the postseason at 5.06. It decreased the Red Sox win probability by 13%. It was just the third bases loaded hit by pitch in the ninth inning of a playoff game.

Quick detour: a Boston pitcher was also involved in the last bases loaded hit by pitch in the ninth inning of a postseason game too. One strike away from evening up the 1986 ALCS at two, Calvin Schiraldi hit Brian Downing with a pitch to tie the game at three. The Angels would win it in extra innings, putting Boston down 3-1 but setting the wheels in motion for their incredible comeback win in the series.

Batter 6: Gary Sanchez, sacrifice fly
An epic at-bat that, had Sanchez’s lofty fly to left traveled just a few feet farther, would have gone down as an all-timer in Yankees history. But like Stanton, Sanchez gives Kimbrel some help. The New York backstop ranks among the lowest in the league in contact rate on balls outside the strike zone. So when Kimbrel misses letters high and inside on a first-pitch fastball, Sanchez cuts right through it. He swings through another hard four-seamer high and away on the next pitch, then lays off a ball in the dirt that Vazquez makes another spectacular, goalie-like play to stop.

Baseball Prospectus ranks Boston’s backup backstop as essentially league average at blocking pitches in the dirt, but he made some huge saves in this inning. Without them, we might be looking at Game 5 Thursday night at Fenway.

Sanchez fouls off a fastball (again giving Kimbrel a gift by chasing a pitch high and out of the zone), then takes two balls to run the count full. Yankee Stadium is losing its collective mind. Sox fans are peering at the TV through their hands. Finally, Kimbrel gives Sanchez a pitch he can do damage with, a low fastball right down the middle. He cranks it to deep left. Red Sox Nation holds its breath.

The ball leaves his bat at 107.1 miles per hour. It travels 344 feet. It’s at least off the wall at Fenway. Possibly more. According to Statcast, it was the 50th hardest hit ball of the playoffs thus far. It’s a whack meant to do maximum damage. It falls just short, into the glove of Andrew Benintendi but scoring a run to make it 4-3. Disaster avoided. Barely.

Batter 7: Gleyber Torres, ground out to third
First and second with two outs. Kimbrel throws the first pitch into the dirt again. At this point in the inning, Craig Kimbrel has thrown nine fastballs and seven of them have been balls. He’s thrown seven of 13 curveballs for strikes but four of those 13 have thudded into the dirt before they get anywhere close to home plate. Simply put, the guy has been all over the place. But Kimbrel gets back to what he does best, throwing fastballs for the two most important strikes of his outing.

Throughout his career, Kimbrel has relied on the fastball when he’s behind in the count. He throws it 85% of the time in those situations. So Torres knew what was coming and still couldn’t do much with it. He took a high strike call on a 1-0 fastball then swung past a high heater to make it 1-2. Ahead in the count, Kimbrel becomes more unpredictable. He throws a 1-2 curve on the outside corner and gets Torres to tap weakly towards third. Nunez rushes in and fires a low ball to Pearce, who stretches his body into a position no 35 year-old, 200 pound guy should attempt. Replay confirms: Torres is out by half a step. The party is on in the Bronx.

Had ‘em all the way.