BOSTON — They've gone from a maddening second-place team to a juggernaut, punishment seemingly imminent as a well-earned walk gives way to a timely hit and then, of late, baseball's ultimate prize.
The Boston Red Sox, suddenly, cannot be stopped, with a tremendous run of slugging putting them two wins away from the World Series.
When Kyle Schwarber punished a fastball from Houston Astros starter Jose Urquidy for a second-inning grand slam in Game 3 on Monday night, it re-wrote the record books yet again and gave the Red Sox undeniable control of this American League Championship Series.
Their 12-3 victory, which gives them a 2-1 ALCS lead, was made largely possible by Schwarber’s no-doubter into the right field seats, Boston’s third grand slam in two games.
That’s a playoff record, as were the two grand slams – in the first two innings, no less – hit by J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers in Game 2. Another mark of domination: The Red Sox took 9-0 leads in both Game 2 and 3.
Yet while the slam-tastic fun facts will make great media guide fodder and scoreboard trivia someday, they obscure, for the moment, the punishing run the Red Sox lineup is on.
Here’s a trivia answer for you: Shane McClanahan. The Tampa Bay Rays right-hander blanked the Boston Red Sox over five innings in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, a 5-0 shutout.
Since then? It’s been duck and cover.
MLB PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Postseason march to World Series
Boston has won five of six since while averaging 8.5 runs per game, bookended by a 14-run outburst to get back in the ALDS and Monday’s 12-run uprising, which included the Schwarber slam, two-run homers from Christian Arroyo and J.D. Martinez and a what-the-heck opposite-field shot from Rafael Devers.
Their banishing of the dreaded Yankees in the wild-card game, followed by a pair of wins to eliminate the Rays and then Monday's masterpiece has electrified Fenway Park, giving the yard a jolt more reminiscent of 2004, when thirsting for a World Series title, and not expecting them, was the norm.
Perhaps it's the full house - 37,603 jammed in Monday night - giddy that they can once again congregate after the worst of the pandemic. Certainly, it's a symbiotic relationship: The Red Sox crush, the fans roar, and both parties grow eager to repeat the thunderous cycle.
"These are moments that you are never going to forget as a player. This is what we live for," says Schwarber, who hit his third home run this postseason and boosted his career playoff OPS to .973. "When you get that first taste, that first experience, you want to keep coming. You want more.
"It's an addicting feeling, and especially in this place where it's just rocking the whole time and it's rowdy and they're in tune to every single pitch, and every run matters."
Meanwhile, over the course of two games, the Astros went from a vaunted nemesis that once held a 1-0 lead in this ALCS to a club, despite its 95-win pedigree, looking grossly overmatched.
With ace Lance McCullers Jr. out for this series, the Astros hoped Urquidy could provide a steadying influence – he’d started and won a crucial Game 4 in the 2019 World Series. But he could not meet the moment in a second inning in which he loaded the bases on two walks and then got no help from second baseman Jose Altuve, whose second crucial error of this ALCS turned a potential inning-ending double play into a 2-0 Red Sox lead.
Then, Schwarber. He began this playoff run with a key homer in the wild-card game against the Yankees and might have ended the Astros with his towering shot off Urquidy.
Urquidy was gone after 1 2/3 innings, after Game 1 starter Framber Valdez lasted just 2 2/3 innings and Game 2 starter Luis Garcia one inning. Astros manager Dusty Baker said his starters' performance was "like Groundhog Day or a recurring nightmare."
Or maybe it's just the Red Sox.
Kiké Hernandez has slugged five home runs in six postseason games, along with a preposterous 18 hits in 36 at-bats. Devers has gone deep four times, Schwarber and Martinez three each.
The home runs are easy to fixate on, Schwarber says, yet "forget about what led up to it." On this night, it was an 11-pitch plate appearance by Alex Verdugo that resulted in a walk, five batters before Urquidy fell behind Schwarber 3-0, his fastball dipping from 95 mph in the first inning to 93 by the time Schwarber unleashed his vicious stroke.
"Offensively," says Cora, "this is the best we've been all season."
Just for the heck of it, lefty Eduardo Rodriguez spun six innings of five-hit ball, the lone run coming on Kyle Tucker’s three-run homer. Rodriguez became just the third pitcher in these AL playoffs to even reach the sixth inning.
Heaven help the remaining three clubs if Boston’s pitching steadies itself.
"Today was as close as we've been to a perfect game," says Cora.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Red Sox defeat Astros in ALCS Game 3 on Kyle Schwarber's grand slam