BOSTON — As the Red Sox clinched their spot in the American League Championship Series, they rode the backs of two players who entered the season wanting to prove their worth.
Kiké Hernandez entered 2021 wanting to demonstrate that he could be an everyday player in the major leagues after his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers typecast him into a utility man role. Reliever Garrett Whitlock hoped to establish himself as a major leaguer after the Yankees left him off the 40-man roster and Boston selected him in the Rule 5 draft. On Monday night, both players proved crucial to Boston’s walk-off 6-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that cemented the Red Sox’s spot in the ALCS.
“I mean, here we are surprising everybody but ourselves,” Hernandez said. “We knew in spring training we had the team to make it this far and here we are.”
Early on Monday night, it looked like the Red Sox might cruise to the ALCS after scoring five runs in the third inning.
While the Rays slowly chipped away at the lead throughout the night, eventually tying the game in the eighth inning, Boston displayed the resilience that made it the team that led the majors in comeback wins during the regular season, pulling off the walk-off win to reach the ALCS in a season when few expected the Red Sox to be playing this deep into the postseason.
Boston scored the winning run on a walk-off sacrifice fly from Hernandez after Christian Vazquez singled on a ground ball before being moved over to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Christian Arroyo. An infield single by Travis Shaw set up Hernandez, who played a crucial role in sparking the offense in Games 2 and 3 to help propel the Red Sox to the ALCS.
“I was just talking to myself,” Hernandez said. “You’re about to win this game, so you need to work on slowing everything down and slowing your breathing down and slowing the game down and starting early and making sure that you see the pitch, and you’re not just swinging at your shoes for no reasons for trying to be a hero.”
The loss went to reliever J.P. Feyereisen, the eighth pitcher of the night for Tampa Bay, while Whitlock recorded the victory after pitching two innings, allowing no hits and no runs. Whitlock came in after reliever Ryan Brasier blew the save for Boston, allowing two runs to Tampa Bay in the eighth inning on an RBI double for Kevin Kiermaier and an RBI single for Randy Arozarena.
To stop the bleeding, Boston turned to Whitlock. Hernandez said people around the team called Whitlock their secret weapon for most of the season.
“It’s not secret anymore,” Hernandez said. “Garrett Whitlock is legit. That is an electric arm with three-plus pitches at his age with his experience coming into this year. It’s not every day that a Rule 5 pick gets to close out a wild-card game and then wins a game that wins not just a division series, but a playoff series.”
Whitlock arrived in Boston as an unheralded Rule 5 draft pick. While most Rule 5 picks fail to make any impact on a team, the Red Sox’s front office felt optimistic about the reliever, whom it scooped up from the Yankees organization. After some Boston scouts watched videos on Instagram of Whitlock’s offseason bullpen sessions, the team decided to take a chance on the 25-year-old righty.
The gamble paid off, with Whitlock posting a 1.96 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP in 46 games, shaping up to be the best version of the prototypical reliever in the modern game: a versatile pitcher who can come in and be a bullpen Swiss Army knife by throwing multiple innings or closing games and getting hitters out in a variety of ways. Whitlock said a turning point came in Chicago in September, when he gave up a walk-off home run to Leury Garcia.
“I was sitting in the bathroom and Kiké Hernandez came up and like I was down on myself,” Whitlock said. “Kiké came up and he was just like, ‘Hey man, you’ve been huge for us all year. You’re going to continue to be huge for us.’ Once he said that, that gave me a lot of confidence to go.”
Cora said that the success of Whitlock is emblematic of the approach the Red Sox take with scouting.
“Instagram gets a shoutout,” Cora said. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen. But it was amazing. It was a great day. I’m very proud of everybody.”
Ultimately, Cora said the team won because the Red Sox executed on the fundamentals, a strength of both Hernandez and Whitlock.
“Kiké put the ball in the air, old-school baseball right there,” Cora said. “Fundamental baseball, and we won the ALDS playing good fundamental baseball.”