Just six outs stood between the Red Sox and an imposing 3-to-1 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. Yet in a season where little has come easily, there should be little surprise that a potential path to the World Series proved crooked — and possibly impassable.
The Red Sox held a 2-1 lead over the Astros in the top of the eighth inning Tuesday night. The one-run advantage seemed significant given that the team’s two most dominant pitchers this year would be entrusted with it.
But Houston, whose five consecutive ALCS appearances have eliminated anxiety in the face of daunting circumstances, rallied for a game-tying run in the eighth off Garrett Whitlock before exploding for seven two-out runs in the ninth — four charged to Nate Eovaldi — in a 9-2 victory seen by 38,010 deflated patrons at Fenway.
“Obviously, it’s a tough loss,” said Chris Sale, who will start Game 5 on Wednesday. “But we’ll bounce back.”
The Astros certainly showed resilience. Longtime Astros cornerstone José Altuve set the comeback in motion, ambushing a first-pitch, 96-m.p.h. Whitlock sinker in the eighth inning. His rocket over the Monster Seats tied the game, 2-2.
One inning later, with two on and two outs, Eovaldi appeared to have closed out a scoreless ninth when his 1-and-2 curveball to Jason Castro seemed to clip the corner. The Sox ace-turned reliever took two steps toward the dugout. Yet home plate umpire Laz Diaz — whose strike zone proved a nightlong source of agitation for the Sox, at one point inspiring a heated argument and a follow-up conversation with Alex Cora — deemed it a ball.
“A lot of people thought it was a strike,” said Cora.
Two pitches later, Castro ripped a go-ahead single to put the Astros up, 3-2 — a falling shingle that proved a prelude to a collapsing roof. Houston plated six more runs (three on a Michael Brantley bases-loaded double) against Eovaldi and Martín Pérez to turn a taut contest into a blowout.
Eovaldi waved off the notion that the Diaz call was the source of his ultimately disappointing performance.
“Whether we get a pitch that goes our way or it doesn’t, we have to move on to the next pitch and not let it affect us and keep attacking the strike zone,” said Eovaldi.
The Sox couldn’t do that. The seven-run half-inning — the largest single-inning eruption in Houston’s playoff history — proved a jarring departure from the eight slow-motion innings that preceded it.
With two outs in the top of the first, Alex Bregman, who had gone 3 for 12 with no extra-base hits in the first three games of the ALCS, skied a 2-and-0 fastball from Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta to left. A ball with the trajectory of a routine pop-up in most parks found sanctuary in the Monster Seats at Fenway, with the solo homer putting Houston ahead, 1-0.
The lead proved short-lived. Rafael Devers worked a two-out walk in the bottom of the first, a free pass that incited Fenway Park. As chants of “Grein-ke, Grein-ke” cascaded, Astros starter Zack Greinke left a slider over the dish to Xander Bogaerts. The Red Sox shortstop sent the ball on a journey toward the Citgo sign beyond left field.
The two-run blast gave the Sox a 2-1 advantage. It marked the third homer of the postseason for Bogaerts, and the 21st of this playoff push by the Red Sox, marking a franchise record.
Greinke, who hadn’t started a game since Sept. 19, was not long meant for the evening. He faced just nine hitters, getting pulled after only 1⅓ innings in which he gave up two runs and three walks.
His outing marked the fourth straight Astros start in the ALCS of fewer than three innings. Through four games, the Astros rotation has had a calamitous collaboration that has totaled 6⅔ innings with 16 runs allowed (14 earned, an 18.90 ERA).
With Greinke’s departure, the Sox seemed primed for yet another offensive eruption after scoring 21 runs over their wins in Games 2 and 3. Instead, while the team had a steady succession of baserunners thanks to seven walks, five Astros relievers shut down the team over 7⅔ shutout innings. The Sox were 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 runners.
Still, the Sox’ offensive woes were rendered inconsequential for much of the night by Pivetta. While he failed to replicate his jumping-on-hot-coals performance of Game 3 in the ALDS, the righthander nonetheless remained similarly effective over five innings.
His mid-90s fastball at the top of the strike zone, complemented by a slider and curveball that broke off that pitch, produced five innings of weak contact, with the Astros hitting a succession of weak pop-ups and flyballs.
Pivetta concluded his outing having permitted just the one run on two hits while walking two and striking out three, thus lowering his postseason ERA to 2.63 in 13⅔ innings. Red Sox starters have logged at least five innings in three of the team’s four ALCS games; the other three LCS teams have combined to produce two outings of five-plus innings in 10 starts.
The Sox then navigated a scoreless sixth inning from relievers Josh Taylor and Adam Ottavino before Whitlock entered in the seventh. He zipped through a pair of outs before a two-out single to right by Chas McCormick. Pinch-hitter Jason Castro then ripped a rocket down the right-field line, but the 108-m.p.h. smash went directly into the first baseman’s mitt of Kyle Schwarber for the third out.
Tasked with a second inning of work, however, Whitlock wavered, as Altuve launched his first pitch of the inning off a sign at the back of the Monster Seats for a game-tying solo homer — the 21st of the second baseman’s postseason career, third most in playoff history.
“I was trying to get ahead,” said Whitlock. “I tip my cap to him.”
The Astros’ victory ensures that the road to the World Series will now head back through Houston, the Sox having foresworn a chance to secure passage to the Fall Classic at home thanks to their first Fenway defeat in five postseason home games. At 2-2, the best-of-seven ALCS is reduced to a two-out-of-three race whose outcome is entirely unclear.
Sale and Framber Valdez, both of whom were knocked out in the third inning of their Game 1 matchup, will try to bring their teams within a win of the World Series, in a series that transformed over the span of two innings.
“You’re dead in the water and things aren’t going good, and then all of a sudden, boom, boom, boom, and you got seven runs,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “That’s what they’ve been doing to us this whole series. We’re capable of doing that as well.”