HOUSTON – Twenty-seven outs.
It is a puzzle that sometimes seems effortless to assemble, a single pitcher capable of briskly fitting together the entire picture on the right night. Yet in the postseason, the task becomes far different — all pieces potentially connecting, yet none perfectly, at a time of year when every pitcher on the staff is available, yet all are most likely pushing against their physical limits.
On Friday, Chris Sale — the surprise Game 1 starter over Nate Eovaldi for the ALCS against the Astros — pitched well enough to entrust his team with a lead but not long enough to ensure its safety. With Sale out of the game in the third inning, the Sox bullpen — tasked with recording 19 outs — eventually faltered in a 5-4 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
“It’s hard, but we’ve done it before,” Sox manager Alex Cora said of his reliance on his bullpen. “Of course, we want our starters to go deeper in the game, but we feel like today we were very close to pulling this off.”
The Sox carried a 3-1 lead through five innings, but Houston summoned a familiar answer in the late innings. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, the longtime cornerstones of the Astros whom manager Dusty Baker compared to Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, went deep against Sox relievers to allow Houston to claim the opening contest of a best-of-seven competition to advance to the World Series.
Boston’s loss came despite another dazzling performance by Kiké Hernández, who went 4-for-5 with a pair of solo homers in defeat.
“It was a beautiful game,” said Correa. “This series is going to be fun to watch. It’s going to be special, and I feel like baseball fans are in for a treat. These are two really good teams going at it.”
Both starters — Framber Valdez for the Astros, Sale for the Sox — proved unsteady at the outset. The Sox had four baserunners in the first (two singles and two walks), yet failed to score against Valdez as a result of a key double play by Kyle Schwarber and an inning-ending bases-loaded flyout by Hunter Renfroe.
While Sale came out in the first inning throwing harder than he had all year, sitting at 95-96 mph, his command was imprecise. Altuve led off with a walk, advanced to second on a one-out single, moved to third on a wild pitch, then scored when Yordan Alvarez lifted a sacrifice fly to left for a 1-0 advantage.
Houston again had Sale backpedaling in the second, loading the bases with one out. But the Sox starter recovered to get three straight swings-and-misses by Altuve for the second out. Michael Brantley then hit a soft, two-out liner to center.
Hernández initially froze before recognizing the ball’s trajectory. The centerfielder raced in and made a diving catch just before the ball connected with the turf. What would have been a two-run single instead became an inning-ending out, with Hernández leaping and howling in celebration.
The October star soon had more reason to crow, leading off the third inning by sending a 448-foot rocket to center for a game-tying solo homer — he has four longballs in six playoff games. Baker, who was being interviewed when Hernández went deep, became the unwitting narrator of the blast.
“It was terrible,” said the Astros manager, who was worried that he might say something that would upset his mother. “It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air, and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”
Baker felt a little better as the inning progressed. The Sox turned that single score into a crooked number, capitalizing when Altuve muffed a potential inning-ending double play grounder with runners on first and second and one out.
Xander Bogaerts, on second after a one-out walk and single by Rafael Devers, immediately read the misplay and scored on Altuve’s error. One batter later, Renfroe ripped a Valdez curveball down the third-base line for an RBI double and a 3-1 lead.
Valdez was pulled one batter later, his day done after just 2 ⅔ innings. Sale’s exit soon followed.
The Sox starter allowed back-to-back one-out singles in the third. He recovered to punch out Kyle Tucker on an elevated 96 mph fastball, but with a string of four straight Astros righties due up, manager Alex Cora turned to Adam Ottavino. The move was rewarded when the righthander retired Yuli Gurriel on an inning-ending groundout.
Sale thus departed his third straight start in fewer than three innings. But as opposed to poor performances that forced his team to scramble in Game 162 of the regular season and Game 2 of the ALDS, this time, Sale concluded a bend-don’t-break labor in possession of a 3-1 lead.
He lasted 2 ⅔ innings in which he allowed one run on five singles and a hit batter. Though he struck out just two of the 15 he faced, both were at critical moments — particularly the Altuve punchout with the bases loaded. Still, it also left his bullpen with more than six innings of work if the Sox were to win.
“I feel like everything as a whole just kind of clicked a little bit better tonight. My command was spotty at times, but when I really needed it, I could bear down and really get what I was looking for,” said Sale. “I’d still like to get a little deeper, give my guys out there in the bullpen a little bit more of a rest. But at the end of the day, you’re just looking for close games at this stage of the game.
“I heard [Alex Verdugo] say the other day A.C.’s playing chess while the others are playing checkers. I’m just a piece to his chess game, so whatever he needs me to do, that’s what I’m there for.”
Yet if Sale was a bishop, then Cora spent the rest of the game carefully maneuvering knights and pawns. Both the Sox and Astros employed seven relievers. A four-hour, seven-minute contest inched forward.
After Ottavino delivered a scoreless fourth and Josh Taylor and Ryan Brasier combined to post a zero in the fifth, the Sox turned to Houck — the righthander who’d been brilliant in relief of Sale in the ALDS. The maneuver backfired when, with a runner on first and two outs, he opted for a first-pitch slider to Altuve.
The Astros second baseman added to his extraordinary postseason record, crushing the Houck Hanger into the Crawford Boxes in left for a game-tying, two-run homer — the 20th longball of Altuve’s playoff career and fourth most in MLB history.
One inning later, Correa’s eyes widened at the sight of an elevated changeup from Hansel Robles (0-1). Correa crushed it down the left field line. He stood at home as the ball sailed into the Crawford Boxes, tossing his bat aside and pointing at an invisible watch with a message: It’s my time.
For the Sox, the gesture had added significance: Now down, 4-3, in the bottom of the seventh, it was getting late.
Houston added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth against Hirokazu Sawamura — one that proved huge, when Hernández drilled a solo homer to left against Houston closer Ryan Pressly in the ninth to make it a 5-4 game.
Hernández became the 17th player in postseason history with four hits and two homers in a game, and the fourth — joining Albert Pujols, Robin Yount, and George Brett — with multiple four-hit games in a single postseason. He also became the first player ever with at least 10 total bases in three different playoff games.
“Enrique,” said Cora, “is en fuego.”
The two teams will meet again on Saturday, with Eovaldi on the mound for the Red Sox against Luis Garcia.
“I don’t think there’s another guy on the planet I’d rather be pitching [Saturday] than Nate,” said Sale. “You look at what he’s done this year. You look at his postseason resume. The guy stacks up with anybody.”
The presence of Eovaldi gives the Sox hope entering Game 2. The team is, after all, familiar with the idea that a first step need not be a defining event.
The Sox lost Game 1 of the 2018 ALCS to the Astros before winning the next four contests to advance to the World Series. More recently, the team saw an initial false note take a turn for the better.
“We lost the first three games of the season to Baltimore, and we felt like Game 4 against Tampa was the season, to be honest with you,” said Cora. “We’ve been living like this for a while, so we’ll be ready for [Game 2].”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.