The Red Sox are facing elimination. They have thrown their two best starters at the Cleveland Indians and both Rick Porcello and David Price have been outmatched by Tribe hitting. They are returning to Fenway with their backs against the wall and their entire season resting on the right arm of Clay Buchholz, a pitcher who had been bad enough to be banished to the bullpen for a chunk of the 2016 season, but who was also excellent down the stretch with a 2.86 ERA in August and a 3.14 ERA in September. The bullpen has had to work hard following the poor performances of the top two starters. The bats have gone cold as ice thanks to Corey Kluber. For the Red Sox to pull off another October comeback, they will need heroics on the mound and at the plate in today's game and beyond. They will also need John Farrell to out-manage the man who was at the helm for some of the greatest October comebacks in the great Terry Francona.
Francona's management of the Indians has been superb thus far. He pushed his ace to Game 2, taking a risk that he would hand the first game to the Red Sox, who were sending 22 game winner Rick Porcello to the hill. When his Indians took an early lead against Porcello, Francona was quick to turn to his best reliever, Andrew Miller, pitching his only lefty for two innings, starting in the fifth. He was equally quick to give the ball to his closer and pushed Cody Allen for 1.2 innings to lock in the Game 1 win. This strategy was clearly built on the knowledge that 2014 Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber would start Game 2 and the belief that his ace would be able to pitch deep. Francona nailed it. Kluber pitched a seven inning gem, striking out seven and allowing just three hits and three walks. Francona's Indians enter Fenway Park needing just a single win in three chances and they have managed that despite just one lefty arm on the roster and with two of their best arms, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, both lost to injury.
But while the Indians have the advantage in the series, Game 3 will not be an easy one for the Tribe to take. Buchholz has been a different pitcher over the last two months, possibly thanks to a shift in his arm slot. The Game 2 blow-out allowed Boston to rest their best left-handed option in Drew Pomeranz, as well as veteran Koji Uehara and get a tune-up outing in for Robbie Ross, Craig Kimbrel and Brad Ziegler. Because Porcello pitched such a short outing on Thursday, he is excepted to start Game 4 if Boston can take this one, giving himself a chance for redemption against Bauer and the Indians. The biggest advantage for the Red Sox is between the two starters, however. Indians starter Josh Tomlin would not be taking the ball this October if Salazar and Carrasco had not been lost to injury and unlike Buchholz, he struggled badly at times down the stretch, posting an 11.48 ERA in August before bouncing back with a 1.69 ERA in September. Despite being right-handed, he has had a terrible time with righties this year, allowing them to hit .295/.323/.522 this season. While Buchholz has been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde throughout his career, Tomlin has been consistently below-average, with an ERA- of 114 for his career.
We can give Boston the advantage here based on Buchholz, home field, and Tomlin's issues with righties, but the biggest factor in this elimination game might be the managers and Terry Francona has more than a small edge over John Farrell. Farrell was even on a wobbly chair for part of the season, though that was probably not justified. He is often criticized for his in-game tactics, however, and often with cause. In Game 1, he let rookie Andrew Benintendi flail helplessly against one of the best Lefties in the game instead of pitching hitting with righty Chris Young, who is on the roster for exactly that purpose. Statheads like Mitchel Lichtman and Rob Neyer beat up on Farrell throughout the Red Sox 2013 World Series run as he started Jonny Gomes over Daniel Nava even with right-handed pitchers on the mound and allowed starter Jon Lester and reliever Brandon Workman to hit in critical situations in the World Series.
For all the heat that Farrell has taken over the years, there are still things to like about having him at the helm. He was also aggressive with his bullpen in Game 1 and that gave the Red Sox a chance to win in the late innings. While letting Benintendi hit against Miller was a curious decision, there are reasonable justifications. Benintendi is the better defender in left and with Miller close to exiting the game, all the other relievers Francona had left would be righties. Benintendi justified the move to some degree when he singled off closer Cody Allen in the ninth, giving the Red Sox the tying run on first base in the final frame. Because Boston is facing elimination, Farrell should be ready to throw everything he has at this game. If Buch struggles, there is Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez lying in wait and he has looked just as willing as Francona to use them. With lefties killing the Red Sox in this series--Jason Kipnis I'm looking at you--Farrell has options to handle them in this game and has only to use them well to keep Boston alive.
The importance of baseball managers is often exaggerated, but it is at its peak in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of an elimination game. Games like this can make or break a manager's career. Even great managers like Buck Showalter can find themselves getting destroyed in the press for a single bad decision. Terry Francona has been one the greatest postseason managers in history. He presided over The 25 when they came back against the Yankees. He was at the helm when the 2007 Red Sox turned things around against the Cleveland Indians. Now he is the guy on the other side of the equation and his one-time pitching coach is managing against him. The lessons John Farrell learned at Francona's side need to be enough for him to manage flawlessly from here to the end of the series. If the apprentice cannot best the master in this game, the Red Sox' season will be over.