WASHINGTON — Alex Cora lifted Tanner Houck after five perfect innings and only 53 pitches Saturday afternoon, a decision easily accepted on a cold day in April but was debatable in the heat of a pennant race.
If there’s a level better than a perfect game, Houck was on it. The Washington Nationals didn’t come close to reaching base outside of the second inning when Andrew Stevenson reached first base after striking out on a wild pitch.
A quick video replay showed Stevenson swung through a slider that hit him. Strike three. Houck then blazed through the next three innings.
“For me, I was planning on staying out there and throwing 100 pitches,” Houck said. “I’m not scared to do that by any means.”
But the rookie was deemed finished after 15 batters and eight strikeouts, Cora turning a 1-0 lead over to the patchwork Red Sox bullpen.
They did not hold it, cracking in the eighth inning when a sacrifice fly by fearsome Juan Soto tied the game.
Had the Sox lost, Cora’s decision would have been debated in every corner of New England and beyond. But 43 years later, Christian Vázquez played the role of Bucky Dent.
His unlikely two-out triple put the Sox ahead in the ninth and they went on to a 5-3 victory in a game that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Sox are now tied with the Yankees at 91-70 with one game left to play and Chris Sale starting Sunday.
Unchain the gates of Fenway Park. With one more victory, the Sox will host the Wild Card Game this week. They hold the tiebreaker on every team left in the field.
With a loss, the Sox are guaranteed at least a tiebreaker Game 163 on Monday.
Houck deserved better than a no-decision. The rookie threw 39 of those 53 pitches for a strike, never going to a three-ball count.
His best moment came in the fourth inning when he struck out Soto looking at a 2-and-2 fastball.
Houck worked the perimeter of the strike zone, throwing a first-pitch slider that nipped the inside corner. His next pitch was a slider down and away then a fastball up and away for ball two.
Soto took a slider low in the zone for strike two then Houck caught him looking at a 96-mph heater on the outside corner.
Houck pitched two innings in relief Tuesday, so there was only so much the Sox could expect from him. He was never going to face the lineup a third time around.
A sixth inning from Houck would have lightened the load on a bullpen that has been leaned on heavily all season. But he didn’t get the chance.
“As a manager, you want to manage with your heart, but you’ve got to be smart, too,” Cora said. “It might look bad outside our world, but this kid threw 40-something pitches the other day.
“Today we felt like that was good enough for us to give us a chance to win. I’m glad we ended up winning the game.”
The Nats got their first hit in the sixth inning but didn’t score. Ryan Brasier, pitching a fourth consecutive day for the first time in his career, left the bases loaded in the seventh.
Adam Ottavino started the bottom of the eighth with a strikeout. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a routine fly ball to center that Hunter Renfroe lost in the dusk. It fell in for a double.
Two walks loaded the bases for Soto. Facing Austin Davis, who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 21, he sent a fly ball to deep center field.
That was probably the best-case scenario against a hitter like Soto.
“That was scary,” Vázquez said.
J.D. Martinez walked to lead off the ninth after falling behind 0-2. With two outs, pinch runner José Iglesias scored when Vázquez crushed a first-pitch fastball from Tanner Rainey to right field for his first triple since 2019.
Vázquez has struggled offensively this season and lost playing time the last few weeks. But a player who has been in the organization for 13 years came through when needed.
“It was fun,” Vázquez said.
The Sox tacked on three more runs, which allowed them to survive a home run by Stevenson in the bottom of the inning.
Nationals Park sounded like Fenway as transplanted New Englanders celebrated. They could get even louder Sunday.
Cora looked spent after the game.
“I’m grinding. I love this. I love this,” he said. “This is what I’m here for. I enjoy it. Every pitch means a lot. It means everything to me.
“I love the fact that after a game, I’m exhausted. Because I do care about this team; I do care about this organization; I do care about my players.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.