The crowd of 37,603, the largest of this increasingly memorable season at Fenway Park, saw the Red Sox at their best on Monday night.
Game 3 of the ALCS was a showcase for a team relentless at the plate, powerful and precise on the mound, and fundamentally sound in the field.
“As close as we’ve been to a perfect game, to be honest with you,” manager Alex Cora said after a 12-3 thrashing of the Houston Astros.
Now a team that didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final day of the regular season is two victories away from the World Series. The Sox lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, with the next two games also at Fenway. Nick Pivetta is the scheduled starter on Tuesday night.
The Astros, their rotation in shambles because of injury and poor performance, are turning to Zack Greinke, who hasn’t started a game since Sept. 19 and has thrown only 3⅓ innings since counting the postseason.
Greinke, who turns 38 on Thursday, will try and slow a Sox lineup that has scored 21 runs on 22 hits, seven of them home runs, in the last two games.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Kyle Schwarber, whose grand slam capped a six-run second inning.
That was plenty for Eduardo Rodriguez, who allowed three runs over six innings. The Sox are 17-5 in postseason games under Cora, who turned 46 on Monday. Happy birthday, indeed.
“We were very aggressive in a lot of aspects,” Cora said. “You feel good about it, but at the same time, like we always do, we turn the page. We’ll be ready for tomorrow. That’s a really good team out there. It’s never comfortable with them. We got to be ready.”
The first 10 batters of the game went in order. Then, seven consecutive Red Sox reached with one out in the second inning.
It started with Alex Verdugo falling behind 0 and 2 and fouling off five pitches to work an 11-pitch walk off Astros starter José Urquidy. The righthander never recovered.
J.D. Martinez followed with a double to center. Third base coach Carlos Febles smartly held Verdugo at third as center fielder Jose Siri quickly got the ball in to Carlos Correa.
Hunter Renfroe walked to load the bases. Christian Vazquez, down 1 and 2, cut down his swing and lined a single to right field for a 1-0 lead. That should have been it when Christian Arroyo grounded sharply to second base. But instead of an inning-ending double play, José Altuve booted the ball and a run scored.
It was Altuve’s second error of the series. He made three errors in Games 2 and 3 of the ALCS last season that contributed to losses.
This time it really hurt. Schwarber got the green light on 3 and 0 and hammered a high fastball into the seats in right field for a grand slam.
“I definitely wasn’t thinking home run, but I definitely was thinking don’t be late and get it in the air,” Schwarber said. “You are trying to get at least one.”
The Red Sox, who had two slams in Game 2, became the first team in history with three in a single postseason series. They join the 1998 Braves as the only teams with three slams in a postseason.
According to Baseball historian Doug Kerns, the Sox are also the first team in history with three grand slams in a span of two games — regular season or postseason.
Singles by Kiké Hernández and Xander Bogaerts finally drove Urquidy out of the game after a 46-pitch inning. Houston starters have allowed 14 runs (12 earned) on 13 hits and eight walks over 5⅓ innings in the series.
“It’s kind of like Groundhog Day. A recurring nightmare,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
With staff ace Lance McCullers Jr. off the roster because of a forearm strain suffered in the Division Series, a thin rotation has crumpled.
The lead grew to 9-0 in the third inning when Renfroe walked, Vazquez singled, and Arroyo lined a home run into the Monster Seats. Martinez added a two-run homer in the sixth and Rafael Devers a solo shot in the eighth.
As the Sox set offensive records, Rodriguez added a bold line to his resume with a strong start. He scattered five hits — four of them singles — and struck out seven without a walk. Outside of Kyle Tucker’s three-run homer in a 34-pitch fourth inning, Rodriguez was in command throughout.
He came out throwing fastballs that nearly hit 96 mph, and retired both the first six and final seven batters he faced.
After retiring Correa on a groundout to end his night, Rodriguez pointed to his wrist, the same “my time” gesture the shortstop made when he homered off Hansel Robles in Game 1. Cora shouted at Rodriguez not to taunt Correa, then wrapped his starter in a hug.
“Besides that he was outstanding. Establishing the fastball, good change-up, good cutter, good tempo,” Cora said.
Correa later said he had no problem with the gesture.
Rodriguez’s quality start was only the second for an American League pitcher in this postseason. McCullers had the other in the Division Series against Chicago.
“For me, it was really important to go throw six innings today, because I know the lineup we have and they can score a lot of runs,” Rodriguez said. “I just feel like I go out there and do the best to keep the other team from scoring too many runs because I know we can do the job.”