The most important hit in Game 1 of the 2018 World Series came from a substitute, but it wasn’t from Max Muncy or Cody Bellinger or Joc Pederson—none of L.A.’s powerful left-handed hitters who sat against Chris Sale and figured to receive important late-inning at-bats against Boston’s mostly right-handed bullpen.
Instead, the big blow came from Boston’s Eduardo Núñez, who lasered a three-run homer that snuck into the first row of seats atop the Monster in the seventh inning Tuesday, turning a narrow 5-4 Red Sox lead into a comfortable 8-4 margin. Boston won by that score two innings later, and Núñez emerged a new hero for Alex Cora’s club, continuing the team’s trend this October of receiving the timeliest hits from the most unexpected hitters.
This pattern began in the Red Sox’s 16-1 romp against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, when Brock Holt hit for the first cycle in MLB playoff history. (And yes, Holt’s cycle-capping home run came off a position player, but he also singled against Luis Severino, tripled against Chad Green, and doubled against lefty specialist Stephen Tarpley, so he was already well on his way to a celebratory night.) It continued into Boston’s triumphant Game 4 of that series, when Ian Kinsler and Núñez supplied RBI hits and Christian Vázquez homered against Zach Britton, supplying Boston with the ultimate winning margin.
It persisted through the ALCS, when Jackie Bradley Jr. mashed nine two-out RBI from games 2–4 en route to series MVP honors. And it reached the biggest stage yet on Tuesday, with Núñez homering and Sandy León knocking two hits and Boston taking a 1-0 series lead.
What do all those contributors have in common? They were terrible at the plate in the regular season, or at least not expected to produce in the playoffs.
Holt didn’t start in games 1 or 2 against New York, and he hasn’t played much since Game 3, but in that one magical night, he accomplished a feat no previous player in MLB history ever had. Kinsler has a .563 OPS in these playoffs, with strikeouts in nearly half of his at-bats, but one of his few hits was a key double against the Yankees. Vázquez had the second-worst regular-season batting line of any player with at least 250 plate appearances this year—besting only León, who was so hopeless at the plate some wondered whether he’d ever again collect a hit. And Bradley became Boston’s chief run producer from the no. 9 spot in the lineup, crushing Houston’s league-best pitching staff despite hitting at a below-average clip in each of the past two seasons.
Then there’s Núñez, Game 1’s unsung swinger, who hit .265/.289/.388 in the regular season and had been Boston’s worst hitter (other than León) through the first two rounds. It was unclear how he collected so many at-bats in the first place: He’s a well-below-average batter, ham-handed fielder, and ponderously slow runner, an unfortunate combination that left him 1.1 wins below replacement level this year, one of the dozen worst marks for any position player.
Thanks to an injury (to Dustin Pedroia) and a sophomore slump (by Rafael Devers), Núñez remained in the lineup for the whole regular season and started Boston’s first two playoff games. But Boston seemed to have enough of the infielder’s multifaceted misery: Cora had benched Núñez a few times this month, both because Devers was swinging a hotter bat and because Núñez had suffered an ankle injury against Houston.
Even against the left-handed Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday, the left-handed Devers started. But with two men on and two outs in the seventh inning, with Boston clinging to a 5-4 lead against a pesky Dodgers lineup, with the erratic Craig Kimbrel looming and every chance at an insurance run vital, Núñez pinch hit against lefty Alex Wood and hit his second pitch toward the fans. In his regular-season career, Núñez is 9-for-49 as a pinch-hitter with no home runs.
Never too cold for a Gatorade bath! pic.twitter.com/xe7gUbgZfZ— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) October 24, 2018
Núñez wasn’t alone on Tuesday; Boston, after all, already had the lead when he recorded his fateful at-bat. Mookie Betts scored Boston’s first run, Andrew Benintendi knocked four hits, and J.D. Martinez drove in two runs—but Boston’s three offensive leaders had produced inconsistently throughout the first two rounds. Only León and Núñez had worse batting lines than Betts and Benintendi through the ALCS, but the Red Sox are now 8-2 in the playoffs because the entire cast of position players has contributed timely hits. Boston’s lineup seemed imbalanced, with a top-heavy tilt that could prove concerning in October, but the bottom of the order has dispelled that potential concern at every turn.
Perhaps Cora just has the Midas touch, turning every decision into gold, or perhaps counterpart Dave Roberts shouldn’t be inserting the likes of Wood—who had already allowed two homers this month—into tense situations. But Boston is three games away from a World Series title, and its best bats haven’t really gotten going yet. They haven’t needed to; Núñez is here, apparently, to clean up Fenway’s mess and wake the Monster within.