The year 2021 saw four out of five Big Train alumni in the major leagues making significant contributions to their teams’ chases for playoff positions. The fifth alum enjoyed his peak year thus far and led his team in one of the pitching categories. Let’s begin with the latter player.
Joe Mantiply (BT 2010) is a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He led their staff with 11 holds and pitched to a 3.40 ERA in 57 appearances. Given that the ERA for the Arizona team as a whole in 2021 was 5.13, his record was impressive.
The Seattle Mariners were in contention for a playoff spot until the final days of the season. Former Big Train players Ty France (BT 2013) and Logan Gilbert (BT 2016) were two of the Mariners who were providing big-time help. France led the regulars on his team in batting average with a .291 mark and was second in hits with 166. He blasted 18 homers and drove in 73 runs. Enjoying a fine rookie year, Gilbert pitched to a 6-5 record with a 4.68 ERA in 24 games, almost exclusively as a starter. More importantly, in his final seven starts, while his team was making their stretch run, he posted a 1-0 record with a 3.62 ERA. He had become the more dependable and experienced pitcher they needed.
The Boston Red Sox had a dramatic season, to say the least. They held first place in their division for a while. They lost a number of players to Covid for a period. They fell into slumps. And they finally came back at the end of the season with a three-game sweep over the Nationals to qualify for a wild card playoff game against the Yankees. All the while, Hunter Renfroe (BT 2011-12) was a steady presence in their lineup, banging out homers and driving in runs, and showing his arm strength from right field. He hit .259 with 31 home runs and 96 RBI. He was second on the team in home runs and third in RBI. He tied for third on the team in total bases (261). He played in the most games (144), got the most hits (135), slugged the most doubles (33), tallied the most total bases, and drove in the most runs in his major league career.
The Tampa Bay Rays, reigning American League Champions from 2020, ran away with the AL East Division Championship in 2021. Brandon Lowe (BT 2014; at right) was one of the offensive leaders of the team. He led the Rays in home runs and total bases. He was second on the team in hits, RBI, and slugging percentage. In 149 games, he had 39 homers and 99 RBI. He scored 97 runs. He had 280 total bases. It was a career year for him in almost every offensive category. On October 2, he blasted 3 home runs and drove in 7 runs in a single game. Other Big Train players have hit 3 home runs or have driven in 7 runs in a single major league game, but none has done both in the same game. After that day’s performance, Lowe's manager, Kevin Cash was quoted as saying: “What a season he’s put together.”
As the 2021 playoff season got underway, the first contest was the Wild Card game between the Yankees and the Red Sox on October 5. The Red Sox ran away with the game, 6-2. Renfroe’s play did not make a big impact on the outcome, but he was a positive force for the Red Sox. He went one for three at the plate and coaxed a walk as well.
Next came the Division Championship Series. Of particular interest to Big Train fans was the series between the Red Sox and the Rays. In Game One, Renfroe singled and Lowe began a hitless streak for the four-game series as the Rays won, 5-0. The Red Sox came roaring back in Game Two with a 14-6 victory that saw another Renfroe single. Game Three was a thriller with the Red Sox coming out on top in the 13th inning, 6-4. Technically, Renfroe scored the winning run, but what will be remembered is that Christian Vazquez hit a walk-off homer driving in both Renfroe and himself. Renfroe was prominent in another play in the top of the 13th. The Rays’ Kevin Kiermeier had slammed a hit to the outfield that appeared to drive in the go-ahead run. The ball hit the Fenway fence, then careened off Renfroe’s body and bounced over the structure into the bullpen. After a lengthy conference between the umpires and MLB officials in New York, the hit was ruled a ground rule double and the lead runner was returned to third base. Since the next batter struck out, no runs scored for the Rays. In the game, Renfroe had two singles and two walks. The Red Sox captured the series with a 6-5 win in Game Four, including a Renfroe double.
Then the Red Sox moved on to play the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series. In Game One, Renfroe went one for three with a double and an RBI as the Astros edged the Red Sox, 5-4. The Red Sox won Game Two, 9-5, but Renfroe was hitless. In Game Three, Renfroe scored twice by taking two walks and advancing around the bases. The BoSox dominated, 12-3. Renfroe closed out the game with a spectacular diving catch in right field off a liner by Carlos Correa. The Red Sox seemed to have Game Four in hand with a 2-1 lead going into the 8th. The Astros tied it up in that inning, and broke it wide open in the 9th, winning 9-2. Renfroe benefited from two walks. Game Five was one that Renfroe would probably like to forget. His team was trounced 9-1, and he went oh for three. Renfroe's lack of hitting was shared by his teammates as Houston’s Luis Garcia tossed a no-hitter for five and two-thirds innings in Game Six before the Sox finally made some noise. Renfroe went oh for two before being removed in the 8th for a pinch hitter, which ended his season. An inning later, the Red Sox season was also over as they went down, 5-0. In the end, they had achieved only two hits in their final game.
Brandon Lowe photo credit to All-Pro Reels, Wikimedia Commons.
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