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He can't play in October. But the Red Sox wouldn't be here without him

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BOSTON — Before every game this month, José Iglesias watches video of the upcoming opposition. He works out, takes ground balls — all the typical pregame stuff established over a 10-year career.

“Just like I’m playing,” Iglesias said in the middle of that routine ahead of ALCS Game 3 in Boston. “It’s the same thing. I trick my mind every day like I'm going to play the next day. That way I stay sharp.”

Iglesias is not going to play the next day. Or the one after that. For however far the Boston Red Sox make it this October, he’ll be watching from the top step of the dugout. He’s not hurt and he ended the season hot — slashing .356/.406/.508 over the final 23 games — but Iglesias is ineligible for the postseason roster. He rejoined the team that he long ago debuted with as a 21-year-old in early September this year, missing the Aug. 31 deadline to be an active part of their playoff picture.

Well, active between the lines at least.

“Let's be honest,” said Kyle Schwarber, who arrived in Boston at the trade deadline and has been a central part of the slugfest so far this postseason, “we're not here without that guy.”

The Red Sox team that eliminated the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in a four-game American League Division Series and took a 2-1 series lead in the ALCS over the Houston Astros while scoring 25 (!!!) runs over three games — capped by a 12-3 victory on Monday night — looks like a juggernaut. But that belies the chaos that nearly sunk their season, and the precarity of even making the postseason. Boston needed every last win down the stretch to have the opportunity to play for a pennant this week. And they needed Iglesias to get those wins.

After a first half spent largely atop the AL East standings, the Red Sox fell out of first place on the final day of July and would never regain the lead. As the Rays ran away with the division, the Sox set their sights on a wild-card spot. And then, on Aug. 27, Kiké Hernández, who is fully vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19. Over the next couple weeks — as baseball entered the final month of the regular season — a dozen players on the Red Sox, which is one of just a handful of teams still below the 85% vaccination threshold, tested positive.

The outbreak threatened their ability to field a team, let alone contend for the postseason. Amid the scramble to fill the gaps and stay competitive, the Sox signed Iglesias, who had been released by the Los Angeles Angels, first to fill in for Xander Bogaerts at short and later to learn second base on the fly.

“It was tough,” Iglesias said about joining a team in crisis mode. “The energy was a little shaky.”

But it was also a chance to once again play meaningful baseball into autumn.

Jose Iglesias celebrates with Rafael Devers after one of Boston's grand slams against the Houston Astros.
Jose Iglesias celebrates with Rafael Devers after one of Boston's grand slams against the Houston Astros. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

The last time Iglesias was part of a postseason chase was 2013, the year the Red Sox traded him to the Detroit Tigers. He was 23, and would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting. The Tigers made it all the way to the ALCS that October — where they were eliminated by a Red Sox team en route to a championship.

As soon as the series and the Tigers’ season were over, Iglesias started rooting for the Red Sox again.

“That was my team,” he said, “When they won, I was very excited.”

Plus, they were playing for his ring.

Eight years later, and now a veteran, Iglesias tried not to think about how his success down the stretch would mean yet another October appearance for his team without him.

“I started to hear about it later, like probably the last week of the season,” he said about his postseason ineligibility. “And I tried to put it to the side because I still have to perform. We weren’t in the playoffs yet. So I put it on the side and continued to do my thing to help the team to get to where we are.”

It worked, of course. He played every game as the Sox went 13-9 down the stretch. On the final day of the regular season, Iglesias was 2-for-3 with a run scored in a victory that ensured the team would keep playing — without him.

“I don’t need to be here,” Iglesias said standing on the field at Fenway, “but I want to be here, and the organization wanted me here.”

No longer an active infielder, Iglesias has become something of a coach — and a chauffeur.

The coaching is literal. Manager Alex Cora said he’s essentially filling that role already: “Communication, understanding the game, watching the game, staying locked in — the guy, he has been great.”

Christian Arroyo, who missed virtually all of the second half but has resumed his role at second base now that Iglesias is sidelined, credits him with offering a critical bit of advice — keep your back foot still — for laying down the perfect sacrifice bunt in the decisive Game 4 of the ALDS.

And in this series, the whole team has leaned on his knowledge of the Astros from spending the first five months of the season in their division with the Angels.

“The information he has passed along with these guys, just the game knowledge,” Schwarber said. “This guy has been around, and he knows the game.”

The chauffeuring is literal, too, if you consider a clubhouse laundry cart to be a luxury vehicle.

For over a year now, the Red Sox have celebrated home runs with “Tunnel Time” — a man-powered roller-coaster ride down the dugout and through a celebratory gauntlet of high-fives in a souped up laundry cart. Originally driven by backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, the job of pushing the cart has been officially bestowed on Iglesias this postseason.

“I was like, ‘I love the carrito,’” he said. “‘I'm the chauffeur of the carrito now.’”

Jose Iglesias pushes J.D. Martinez in a laundry cart through a celebratory gauntlet in the dugout, part of the customary Red Sox home run celebration.
Jose Iglesias ferries J.D. Martinez through the trademark Red Sox home run celebration — 'Tunnel Time.' (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

After the wild-card game and ALDS — during which the Red Sox hit 11 home runs in five games — Iglesias noted that the chauffeur had been quite busy.

“And I hope I get busier over the course of the playoffs,” he told the Associated Press.

Well, he has. So far in the Astros series, the Red Sox have slugged another nine home runs — that’s 20 total through just eight games this postseason, including three grand slams. It’s part of an offensive outpouring that’s setting new records nightly and making them look like an unstoppable force. It’s a far cry from the team that was relying on rejects to man the infield just about a month ago. But they haven’t forgotten about the players who stepped up then to make now possible.

“I mean it's fun, right,” Iglesias said.”It's, uh, sad that I cannot play, but I'm taking it one day at a time and just contributing in any way I can.”

Arroyo, who hit one of four Boston home runs Monday night, said, “I don't even think he really realizes the impact that he had on our team.”

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