HOUSTON — For the Red Sox, Game 2 of the ALCS offered a reminder of the value of a pitching staff anchor. For the Astros, it represented a growing nightmare of a rudderless rotation that is subject to the whims of a hostile postseason sea.
After a 9-5 Red Sox victory in Game 2, the series is tied, 1-1. Yet the relative positions of the teams — particularly their pitching staffs — seems very different.
Once again, Nate Eovaldi underscored his credentials as a reliable October force. Though the Red Sox righthander allowed three runs — his most in nine career playoff outings — he never seemed threatened. Over 5⅓ innings, he remained in command of both his five-pitch arsenal and the Astros lineup, allowing five hits (four singles and a double), walking one and striking out three.
“Come playoff time, I want Nate on the mound because he just seems to have it,” said J.D. Martinez. “He has that dog in him.”
Eovaldi proved unflappable amidst a chaotic playoff environment, undaunted by either a ballpark with fans at full roar in the first inning or a 41-minute delay that occurred before he took the mound in the second. The veteran remained characteristically serene when counterpart Luis Garcia left the game with a right knee strain, resulting in reliever Jake Odorizzi being afforded an unlimited time to warm up.
“The timing was nice since it was the very beginning of the game,” Eovaldi shrugged, suggesting he threw a ball into a net, ran up and down some stairs, and spent some time in the weight room. “It really didn’t bother me too much.”
Nothing, it seems, bothers Eovaldi in the postseason. The Sox have every reason to feel enormous confidence about any starts he makes.
He’s made five career playoff starts. The Sox are 5-0 in them, with Eovaldi owning a 4-0 record and 2.83 ERA in those contests. He’s the one starting pitcher standing in the ALCS who can reliably navigate his team into the middle innings of a game.
While Eovaldi required a visit from the trainer in the bottom of the sixth inning after he tweaked his back while striding farther than usual on a pitch, he waved off the issue as one that had disappeared by the end of the game. The righthander said after that he anticipated being available out of the bullpen when the series moves to Boston.
Meanwhile, his ability to work into the sixth inning ensured that the Sox would be able to stay away from both Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta — who will now be at full rest if called upon to start Games 3 and 4.
“For us to be able to stay away from Eddie and Pivetta is huge for us going back to Boston,” said Eovaldi.
The Astros, by contrast, face turmoil. Lance McCullers Jr., the unquestioned staff ace and postseason veteran, was left off the ALCS roster because of forearm tightness. The second-best Houston starter, Framber Valdez, lasted just 2⅔ innings in Game 1 of the ALCS, and departed with his team trailing, 3-1.
Then came Game 2. Garcia allowed a first-inning grand slam, walked the leadoff batter in the second, and was promptly visited by manager Dusty Baker and a Houston trainer, who pulled him in favor of Odorizzi.
José Urquidy will start Game 3. Odorizzi, the scheduled Game 4 starter, is no longer a candidate after throwing 82 pitches Saturday.
So, to summarize: The Astros are without their best starter, their second and third starters have combined for 3⅔ innings while allowing eight runs, and now they need a Game 4 starter with little idea about whether Garcia would be able to pitch should the series extend to six games. They do have Zack Greinke as an option, but the 37-year-old’s late-season fade (15 runs in 11⅓ innings in September) resulted in his removal from the postseason rotation.
“It’s a tough situation. We can piece it together the best way we can,” said Odorizzi. “Let’s just push the problem as far as we can … We just have to take it one game at a time from a pitching staff and piece it together.”
The Red Sox now return to Fenway with Rodriguez and Pivetta fully rested, along with a bullpen in which the majority of their pitchers will be coming off two days of rest entering Game 3 — precisely the scenario for which Red Sox manager Alex Cora had hoped when he pegged Chris Sale for Game 1 (when the lefty went 2⅔ innings in a 5-4 loss) and Eovaldi for the start in Game 2.
“There’s a reason we map things the way we do,” said Cora. “[In Game 1] we almost pulled that off. Obviously, we want Chris to go deeper, and I think he will, but having Nate in Game 2, understanding and knowing that there’s a good chance he is going to go deep in the game with the off day [Sunday], we felt comfortable with the way we did things. He has been a horse for us, he’s been amazing, and he went out there and did an amazing job.”
The relative positions of the pitching staffs is no guarantee of what will follow. In 2016, Cleveland entered the ALDS against the Sox without Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar, but promptly swept past Boston on a run that took them to Game 7 of the World Series.
Even so, the Sox are positioned exactly where they were hoping to be as they head back to Boston. Houston … has a problem.
“Every time you make a plan, it’s always followed by something,” sighed Baker. “We’ve got to try to figure it out.”