Chris Sale was the best pitcher in the American League for most of 2017. Craig Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball.
Yet after this long, rainy afternoon led to stinging season-ending defeat for the Red Sox, the most important question is not who is best. It is this: If a team is going to acquire Addison Reed at the trade deadline for the purpose of pitching him in the eighth inning of the most vital games, why wouldn't you use him?
The drama was so high, the narrative unraveled in such fascinating ways Monday, it was easy to get caught up in the theater. If anything, this one proved you don't need a 1-0 game to satisfy baseball aficionados. Absorbing moments abounded in an 247-minute passion play, ultimately ending with a 5-4 Astros victory in Game 4 of the ALDS.
There was home plate umpire Mark Wegner's ultra-generous strike zone leading to punch-outs of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Dustin Pedroia and the second-inning ejection of manager John Farrell. Duplicating David Price's performance of Sunday, Sale pitched four innings of shutout ball. Perhaps overreacting to Sale's appearance, Astros manager A.J. Hinch countered with Justin Verlander in relief for the first time in his 13-year career.
There was Andrew Benintendi, little Benny Biceps, greeting Verlander and his hanging slider with a go-ahead, two-run homer that hooked inside The Pesky Pole. There were 37,305 Fenway fans suddenly inspired to chant, "Up-ton! Up-ton!" Color me naive, but pointing out that Kate Upton is his fiancee probably didn't discourage Verlander in the least.
And there was Rafael Devers in the ninth striking the first postseason Red Sox inside-the-park homer since 1916. Yet one needn't trace back 101 years for the burning issue of today, yesterday, last week, last month or last year: If you are owner John Henry, if you are baseball czar Dave Dombrowski, how do you not replace Farrell?
Asked if he expected to be back in 2018, Farrell, who is under contract for next season, answered, "We just walked off the field 10 minutes ago."
Asked another way, if he felt he was the manager who can get these Red Sox over the hump of the division series, Farrell answered, "Personally, yes, I feel confident in that there's a lot of good things going on here."
Successive AL East titles have led to successive ALDS washouts. Yes, Farrell won the World Series in 2013. I certainly do not think he is some kind of managerial dunce. We can argue all night about the hundreds of things, good and bad, Farrell has done since replacing Stamford's Inventor of the Wrap. Not starting Hanley Ramirez and Devers in Game 1 certainly were not among his genius moves. Then again, I thought slumping Xander Bogaerts should hit eighth Monday and he crushed a home run in the first inning.
When Grady Little went out to the mound and decided to leave Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, you knew he was fired by the time he got back to the dugout. Was the eighth inning Farrell's Grady Little moment? Maybe. Maybe not.
First, Farrell deserves credit for stepping in so Pedroia, who carried on far too much for a veteran in an important situation, wouldn't get ejected.
"I did not argue balls and strikes," Farrell said. "There was nothing derogatory or directed straight at him. It was a really quick hook."
Second, anybody who thinks the eighth inning was up to Gary DiSarcina is delusional. Farrell is in charge and the thought of him operating from behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz must be a delicious one for his region of critics.
"Managers, we're judged on results, yet we work on process," Hinch said. "You can lose playing conservatively, too. It's very easy to go to the bullpen and leave Verlander out of it. But our job's to try to win. It's not to try not to lose."
There's also the truth that going with your best pitchers is not the best in certain situations. As terrific as Sale was in his first relief appearance in five years, he was pitching on three days rest and started to lose some location in a 24-pitch seventh. After 65 pitches, it seemed like the right spot for the lefty to turn the ball over.
"We did feel like he was tiring a little bit," Hinch said.
"As efficient and as pinpoint his control was to that point, he was still in good shape I thought," Farrell said.
Farrell said consideration was given to going to the right-hander to start the eighth against Alex Bregman, but he wanted to stay with the lefty through the bottom of the order because of the reverse splits of hot-hitting righty Yuli Gurriel.
Sale left a 2-and-1 changeup in the middle of the plate to Bregman. Boom, over the Green Monster, it was tied. Sale gave up a single to Evan Gattis, got Brian McCann to line out, and Kimbrel was brought mid-inning to face the top of the Houston order.
Kimbrel likes to pitch clean innings. This was a messy situation of inherited runners. After Kimbrel walked George Springer, Josh Reddick ended a terrific eight-pitch at-bat by driving a full-count fastball that leaked back over the plate to left field for the go-ahead RBI single. In the ninth, pinch hitter Carlos Beltran ended another eight-pitch at-bat by driving a curve off the wall for the winning RBI double. Kimbrel, the great closer, had two chances to put away guys on two strikes. Didn't happen.
"We had arguably our two best pitchers to close things out to get the final six outs," Farrell said.
Farrell got greedy. Yes, it's on the players, but it's on the process, too. Reed got skipped over for the job he was hired to do when it mattered most. Nobody would blame him if he signed elsewhere as a free agent.
The Red Sox need a power bat, to be honest, need it more than a new manager. They also need some veteran leadership, the kind Jonny Gomes and David Ross brought in 2013. The Red Sox also bring a truckload of talent back in 2018.
At the end of the regular season, Dombrowski said Farrell did a "great' job. Yet if you had made all these personnel moves, with a monster payroll, don't you think, "I've given John a really good team and he has washed out two postseasons in a row?"
And if you are an owner, with interest clearly far below a decade ago, with seemingly all of New England having zero faith in Farrell, isn't it a wise business decision to say thank you, John, and move in a different direction?