Cora gets creative, Rafaela’s defense secures unique extra-inning Red Sox victory

After cruising to a 9-0 victory in Monday’s series opener, the Red Sox found themselves struggling to overcome the Oakland A’s in a follow-up meeting that went to extra innings.

Though the contest ultimately provided chaotic entertainment and obscure baseball education before Boston pulled off a 5-4 victory in the 11th inning, the evening began normally enough. Brayan Bello’s second start of the season extended the Red Sox rotation’s streak of five-plus inning starts, though it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. After a 1-2-3 first, the righty ultimately allowed four earned runs on five hits, including a pair of two-run homers, walked one, and struck out six before his evening was over. (He’s now in line to pitch the home opener on Tuesday, Apr. 9.)

The Boston bats got their knocks early against the Oakland arms, and scored a run in each of the first three frames. Jarren Duran led off the game with a hit-by-pitch, then scored the first run of the game on Trevor Story’s two-out double. In the second, Duran’s two-out single plated the second run, before he was tagged out trying to stretch a single into a double to end the frame. After Bello gave up a game-tying homer in the bottom of the second, Pablo Reyes’ one-out single brought in the third run in the third, giving Boston the lead back, albeit briefly.

But when Bello gave up two leads in two innings, the Sox lineup appeared to deflate. Between the fourth and sixth, they failed to get a hit, only managing to get on base via Duran’s second hit-by-pitch of the night and Triston Casas’ leadoff walk in the sixth.

After leaving the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, they’d collected 10 hits, but were 4-for-10 with runners in scoring position and had left 10 men on base.

As the innings grew late and the lineup still couldn’t retake the lead, Alex Cora began playing musical chairs with his defense. For the bottom of the sixth, Wilyer Abreu took over in right field, Tyler O’Neill moved from right to left, Ceddanne Rafaela moved from center to second base, and Jarren Duran moved from left to center.

In the bottom of the eighth, Cora went for a double-switch, sending Rafaela back to center and putting Enmanuel Valdez in at second. This also meant giving up the DH and putting the pitcher into the lineup, which would rear its head in an unexpected way a few innings later.

Thus for the second time in four days, and only six games into the season, the Red Sox found themselves playing free baseball on the west coast.

With Enmanuel Valdez beginning the 10th as the ghost runner on second, Rafaela worked a full count to join him on the bases. But let this contest serve as a reminder that a team’s payroll is no guarantee of talent or lack thereof, because Oakland righty Mason Miller blew Abreu and Connor Wong away with 100-102 mph fastballs to keep the game tied heading into the bottom of the inning.

When Josh Winckowski intentionally walked J.J. Bleday to put runners on the corners with only one out in the bottom of the tenth, Cora went back to his bag of tricks. He called for a five-man infield – which is allowed, unlike the shift – and brought Rafaela his infielder’s glove. After getting the second out via fielder’s choice, Rafaela headed back to the outfield, and Winckowski finished the frame with a swinging strikeout.

Things got even weirder in the top of the 11th, when Abreu became the ghost-runner on second despite not being the last out of the previous inning. He found himself back on base because Wong, who’d struck out to end the tenth, had ceded his spot in the lineup to the pitcher. The rules stipulate that in such cases, a team may use the preceding player instead. (Cora later told reporters that pitching coach Andrew Bailey had reminded them of said loophole.)

With their first lead in nine innings, the Sox headed to the bottom of the 11th. Winckowski headed back out for his second inning, and began with a leadoff strikeout looking. With almost anyone else manning center, Shea Langaliers likely would’ve tied the game with his flyball to deep right-center, but Rafaela not only made the catch look effortless, but held the ghost-runner at second. The league is already learning not to run on the rookie.

“That’s what we do now,” Cora said. “We play better defense, and we pitch a lot better… I knew he had it, he had it the whole time.”

Buoyed by the Gold Glove-caliber moment, Winckowski got Lawrence Butler to strike out swinging. After 11 innings, the west was won.

“Unbelievable,” Winckowski raved to NESN’s Jahmai Webster. “Ceddanne’s speed is just unbelievable. That’s an unbelievable catch, and obviously, 100-percent saves the game and gives me a chance to keep battling.”

The Red Sox collected 12 hits, four walks, struck out 15 times, used six pitchers, made roughly nine defensive substitutions and switches, emptied the bench, and won the series, which wraps up on Wednesday afternoon.

“The whole coaching staff was part of it,” the skipper said. “We haven’t done this in a while, the double-switch and all that stuff… It was fun.”

“Total team effort.”

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