He had lifted his fist rounding first base and shot an imaginary arrow at home plate and wiggled his hips like Elvis on his way into the home dugout at Fenway Park — and still Eduardo Nunez howled in shock when a Red Sox teammate dumped a cooler full of blue Gatorade over his head on a chilly Tuesday night.
Nunez had sent a thrill through the sellout Boston crowd some 30 minutes earlier. He scooped a breaking ball out from near his ankles and golfed it. The pitch carved a parabola in the sky and soared over the Green Monster in left field in the seventh inning of a one-run ballgame. Three hundred and seventy-three feet later, the Red Sox were three runs richer and on their way to an 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series.
Nunez should have girded himself for Christian Vazquez’s sneak attack.
But the unlikeliest hero of Boston’s postseason has never been on a stage like this before. He is 31 years old and playing in the World Series for the first time since making his major league debut in 2010.
Sometimes all you can do is soak in the magic of a pinch-hit, three-run home run.
“I wanted to come back to this team and it was for this moment,” Nunez said in Spanish.
To understand the magnitude of Nunez’s hit off the bench you must go back to last October. To the night that left a sour taste in Nunez’s mouth as he waited out the frozen free-agent market.
Nunez had clawed his way back from a late-season right knee injury so he could help the Red Sox -- the team that traded for him at the July nonwaiver deadline -- battle the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros in the American League Division Series. He’d been limited to just 32 at-bats in September because of a sprain, but he felt well enough to successfully lobby for a spot in Boston’s first lineup of the 2017 postseason.
After the Red Sox acquired him from the San Francisco Giants in July, Nunez batted .321 with an .892 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and stole six bases in a Boston uniform. The numbers capped a rather brilliant season in which he set career bests in batting average (.313) and OPS (.801).
The Red Sox needed Nunez back.
The confidence he had in his knee evaporated within seconds of ending his first playoff at-bat with a groundout to third base. Nunez limped out of the batter’s box at Minute Maid Park. He had crumpled in a heap by the time the ball was caught for the out at first base.
Too overwhelmed by pain to get up on his own, Nunez was carried off the field by former Red Sox manager John Farrell and a trainer.
“That was sad to see last year,” said rookie Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who watched the scene from the Astros dugout while he was still their bench coach. “It's a guy that he changed the complexion of the Red Sox when he got traded from San Francisco. He carried this offense and put this team in a different dimension.”
Nunez, who signed with the Red Sox in mid-February, hasn’t been able to replicate that since. Dogged by discomfort in his knee, he hit .265 in 127 games this season.
Nunez continued his underwhelming first full campaign with the Red Sox by knocking only three hits and driving in one run in 18 postseason plate appearances. He made some defensive blunders and was relegated to the bench, partly because of an injured ankle and partly because there were more well-rounded lineup options for the Red Sox.
Nunez, a right-handed hitter, was never supposed to be the guy for Cora. He was supposed to fit the utility mold and serve in a platoon role. Nunez didn’t even get the start Tuesday against southpaw Clayton Kershaw because the Red Sox favored the chances for the lefty-hitting Rafael Devers, who had turned 22 by the end of the nearly four-hour game.
But Cora warned Nunez there might be time for him to come off the bench. The Dodgers had left-handed relievers like Alex Wood that Nunez could match up against.
“I told him: ‘Be ready, man. You might have a big at-bat tonight and do your thing,’” Cora said.
The decision to sit Devers, who hit an RBI single in his previous at-bat, in favor of Nunez could have backfired. But it didn’t. With two runners on base and two out in the seventh, Nunez sent Wood’s second pitch of the night, a backfoot breaking ball, over the Green Monster.
“It seemed like it was a tight ballgame the whole entire time,” said Andrew Benintendi, who had four hits in the game and scored on the homer. “And getting that extra three runs and that extra cushion was kind of like a deep breath, and an exhale.”
For Nunez too. He’d spent the last nine seasons trying to get to this point, jumping from the Yankees to the Minnesota Twins and eventually the Giants and Red Sox in search of even just one piece of October glory.
His wait could end sometime in the next week if the Red Sox stave off the Dodgers for three more wins.