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MLB playoffs 2021 – Fenway magic is in the air as Red Sox roll into ALCS

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BOSTON — The chants at Fenway Park during this Red Sox playoff run echo in your mind. When Gerrit Cole struggled through the AL Wild Card Game, failing to make it past three innings, Boston fans made chants of “GERRIT!” ring through the crowd. When Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena ran out to right field, Red Sox fans in the bleachers let him hear it with chants of “RANDY!” (He tipped his hat in response.) After Luis Patiño gave up a game-winning home run to Christian Vazquez in Game 3, fans greeted him pre-game in Game 4 with jeers, leading the Rays pitcher to blow kisses to the crowd. When Patiño later entered the game — facing Vazquez — the Fenway crowd echoed a jeer from annals of Red Sox history.

“WHO’S YOUR DADDY?”

Maybe it’s the months spent inside during COVID quarantine. Maybe it’s that the Red Sox find themselves back in the playoffs after posting one of the worst records in baseball during the 2020 season. Maybe it’s the division rivalry playoff games against the Yankees and the Rays that elicited the rowdy bleacher chants, but few around Fenway Park can remember an atmosphere this loud and enthusiastic as the audience the Red Sox played in front of in Boston during this playoff run.

With the roar of a Marathon Monday crowd behind them, Boston advanced to the ALCS with a 6-5 win over the Rays on Monday night. The Red Sox took the lead early in the game in the third inning behind a Rafael Devers three-run homer, an Alex Verdugo RBI double and an RBI single from designated hitter J.D. Martinez. While the Rays chipped away at the score in the fifth innings with an RBI from Austin Meadows and a sixth-inning Wander Franco home run, even eventually tying the score in the eighth, the Red Sox rallied yet again, with a Kiké Hernandez walk-off sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Players on both the Rays and Yankees admitted the effect of the crowd on the game. The sentiment from those around the team — from the Fenway Park security guards to the players to the coaches to the front office executives — remained the same across the board: The crowds in Boston are at another level this postseason, a near-legendary status.

There’s magic in the air right now at Fenway Park.

Outfielder Hunter Renfroe: “I think that was probably the best fans, noise, interaction that I’ve ever seen, from both ours and Yankees fans alike.”

Hitting coach Tim Hyers: “My personal experience, this has been as good as any. I’ve had my kids in town and they’ve been to a lot of playoff games with me and they said this was incredible. They haven’t experienced Fenway like it was in the past week.”

Assistant GM Eddie Romero: “Louder than the 2018 World Series.”

The crowds at Fenway have plenty of reasons for excitement. Coming into the season, the analytics group for the Boston Red Sox projected modest expectations for the 2021 team, a squad they believed could win around 86 games and compete for a wild-card slot. Instead, by the end of the first half, they were on pace to win 98. No other team in baseball tallied more comeback wins , who, in the process, re-calibrated expectations for the season.

Still, Red Sox fans fumed at the trade deadline when the team added slugger Kyle Schwarber and reliever Hansel Robles but no additional reinforcements to the bullpen and rotation. By late September, after the Sox were swept by the Yankees then dropped two-of-three against the Baltimore Oriole, the pressure had risen again — Boston needed a win in the final game of the season to clinch a spot in the Wild Card Game. In that must-win game, against the Nationals, the Red Sox fell behind 5-1 before Rafael Devers hit a game-winning home run — his second of the day — that helped supercharge the Red Sox into the playoffs in one of the final plays of the MLB season.

Better yet, their wild-card appearance would come at home — against the Yankees. In front of the first playoff crowd at Fenway since the 2018 World Series, the Red Sox showed up early — scoring two runs against Gerrit Cole in the first inning — and often, controlling the entire game and winning 6-2. That win set a tone, and they haven’t lost a playoff game at home yet. dropping the ALDS opener in Tampa Bay, they took Game 2 away and then both games in Boston, including a Game 3 walk-off after a controversial play that would have given the Rays the lead in the 13th.

Each of these games had a different hero: Devers. Hernandez. Vazquez. But even before the postseason heroics began, Alex Cora pointed to his ballclub’s roster depth — particularly as a parallel with the 2018 team that beat the Dodgers in the World Series. As Boston prepared to finish off the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4, that assessment was more true than ever — and Cora believes it’s a huge reason why the team is moving onto the American League Championship Series.

“As far as versatility, we have to be creative and we try to maximize our roster the best we can,” Cora said earlier in the season. “I think that team was faster. We were able to do more running the bases, but I think result-wise, offensively, it’s very, very similar.”

That offense is the core to the team’s success this postseason — and in the regular season, when Boston finished fifth in baseball in runs scored. Cora’s belief in the team’s ability to collect runs fuels an optimism in the Boston dugout that no matter the score, the Red Sox offense gives the team a chance to win — much like the 2018 team, when they averaged more than five runs per game.

“We talk about it in the dugout like, ‘hey, let’s do what we do. Put up good at-bats,'” Cora said. “What they did yesterday, they’ve done it the whole season. They scored the most runs after the seventh inning. They hit good pitching late in games, and their at-bats are a lot better late in games, and their at-bats are a lot better late in games. I think when you have good offensive teams, you give yourselves a chance for nine innings.”

Hernández, perhaps more than any other player, seemed to take advantage of the magic in Fenway this weekend, following up his standout Game 2 performance with another three hits in Game 3, including a solo homer and a game-tying RBI. The eight hits in two games tied the all-time record in a single postseason (Derek Jeter had eight hits in two games during a span between the 2005 and 2006 postseason), while his seven consecutive hits fell one short of the all-time record.

It was the kind of performance Hernández had hoped for since he signed with Boston, looking to establish himself as an everyday player after his time with the Dodgers typecast him as a utility player. But for much of the season, the transition seemed unlikely to work out. Hernández said he struggled to feel comfortable in the early part of the season after Cora anointed him the lineup’s leadoff man. He started to settle in in late June, when Hernández decided to hit the reset button on his season after hitting .227/.287/.387 through June 25 before smashing a leadoff homer against Gerrit Cole on June 26.

“I told myself that the season started today and started feeling better, and then that day against Cole, they put me back in the leadoff spot and I was already feeling pretty good at the plate and then I said that I’ll take my chance the first pitch of the game and I hit a homer first pitch,” Hernández said. “I took off from there.”

The combined playoff experience of the roster contributes to the team’s ability to stage comebacks, according to Hyers. Bogaerts, Devers, Martinez and Vázquez all played big roles on the 2018 championship team while recent additions like Hernández, Schwarber and Renfroe all boast playoff experience on their resumes.

“They don’t panic and they know how to play the game to win and offensively they know how to succeed,” Hyers said. “Doing it is a different thing, but they have that experience to draw from.”

As much as this team reminds its manager and many of its players as 2018, going from here, they’ll be comparing themselves to a different Red Sox team: the 2013 squad. The 2021 Red Sox were the fourth team since 1969 to advance to the LCS one season after finishing last in their division. The previous one to do it? The 2013 Red Sox — who went on to win the World Series.

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Follow live: Red Sox look to stay hot, take control of ALCS

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Houston Astros start rookie Jose Siri in center field for Game 3 of ALCS

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BOSTON — The Houston Astros are starting rookie Jose Siri in center field over Chas McCormick for Game 3 of their ALCS matchup against the Boston Red Sox on Monday night.

“He can cover the ground, and he can also throw to stop you from scoring on the double from first base [and] limit triples,” manager Dusty Baker said Monday afternoon. “He throws better than McCormick and [Jake] Meyers, who is not quite ready.”

Siri, 26, played 21 games for the Astros this year including five starts in center. He will bat eighth in Monday’s lineup.

It might be Siri’s lone start as Meyers is close to returning after suffering a shoulder injury attempting to catch a ball over the outfield wall against the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS.

“He is doing a lot better,” Baker stated. “He could probably get a start in these next two days, maybe as early as tomorrow [Tuesday]. Every day is important when you are fighting an injury.”

Game 3 will be Siri’s first at Fenway Park in his career.

“My first time playing in the postseason in the big leagues and to do it in center field at Fenway Park, it means a lot to me, and I’m really excited about it,” Siri said through a translator. “It’s a big center field, very deep. A lot of room to maneuver. I think I have an opportunity to make some good plays out there in center.”

Siri hit .304 with four home runs in 46 at-bats for the Astros this season.

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Carter Hawkins introduced as Chicago Cubs GM after 14 seasons with Cleveland Indians

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CHICAGO — Carter Hawkins was part of Cleveland’s front office when the Indians lost to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series. He vividly remembers being on the team bus for the trip to the airport after Game 5.

“We’re just inching along, just barely going anywhere. There’s people everywhere,” Hawkins recalled, “and all I could hear was ‘Go Cubs Go’ over and over and over and over.”

Now he wants to sing along with those same fans in October.

The 37-year-old Hawkins was formally introduced as the Cubs’ new general manager on Monday, stepping into a position that had been open since Jed Hoyer was promoted to president of baseball operations almost a year ago.

Hoyer, who took over the top job after Theo Epstein stepped down, put off the GM search because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also wanted to empower the rest of his front office.

When he started to begin his search in earnest, he said Hawkins’ name came up repeatedly as he made calls around the league.

“As we started talking on the phone during this process and then as we moved to formal interviews, it became clear to me how he built such a sterling reputation,” Hoyer said. “He spoke with clarity and conviction about leadership, employee development, organizational alignment and team building.

“The breadth of our conversation was really remarkable and really showed his preparation for all aspects of the GM job today.”

The conversations between Hoyer and Hawkins included a dinner that lasted approximately five hours and watching this year’s AL Wild Card game — an experience Hawkins compared to the Manning brothers’ broadcast for Monday Night Football.

“It was very comfortable from the get-go,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins comes to Chicago after 14 seasons with Cleveland, including the last five as an assistant general manager. He also supervised the team’s player development department.

While the Cubs have struggled with developing their young pitchers, the Indians have flourished.

Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, a fourth-round pick in the 2016 amateur draft, won the AL Cy Young Award last year. Aaron Civale, a third-rounder in 2016, went 12-5 with a 3.84 ERA in 21 starts this season. Zach Plesac and Triston McKenzie also have had some positive moments.

“You’re not going to hire a GM based on a couple guys they’ve developed, but certainly their ability to develop pitching has been remarkable,” Hoyer said.

Hawkins played college baseball at Vanderbilt and started working for Cleveland in 2008 as an advance scouting intern. As he worked his way up with the Indians, general manager Mike Chernoff said Hawkins had a “huge impact” on their player development process.

“I think we’ve all seen in the game, the evolution of player development has been really, really fast and dynamic over the past 10 years,” Chernoff told the AP, “and Carter’s been able to help lead the group through that, especially with the more information and technology that we have now to kind of quantify development in ways that we couldn’t in the past.

“He’s helped to weave that into a system that was very much process-based, but not necessarily analytically based, and to tie that together with just great coaching.”

Chernoff called Hawkins “a really incredible solid person.”

“I mean that’s probably his greatest strength, is just the interpersonal relationships that he builds, the way that he can connect with a lot of different people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets and really bring people together,” Chernoff said.

Next up for Hawkins is helping Hoyer rebuild Chicago after it went 71-91 this season for the club’s worst record since it went 66-96 in 2013. It had a string of six consecutive winning seasons before faltering this year.

Longtime stars Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were traded away in July.

Pitching likely will be the team’s top priority over the winter. The Cubs had a 4.87 team ERA in 2021, ranking 27th in the majors.

“What Jed and Theo started to put together roughly 10 years ago today has raised the bar in Chicago for baseball to an incredibly high level,” Hawkins said. “The challenge is how do we raise it even further, and that is a difficult challenge, but one I’m eager to take on.”

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