Chris Sale was ferocious against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS on Wednesday, firing fastballs and bending sliders like the pitcher who helped deliver the Red Sox a championship in 2018.
Through five innings and 79 dazzling pitches, Sale allowed one run. He was an ace again, just when they needed him.
It also was nearing the outer limits of what the Sox hoped Sale could give them after two short, erratic starts earlier this postseason.
Then manager Alex Cora asked for more.
The result was a disheartening 9-1 loss that left the Sox a game away from elimination with the series shifting back to Houston.
The Sox had a 2-1 series lead after winning Game 3 on Monday. They have been outscored, 18-3, in two games since.
A team that needed to win the final game of the regular season to make the playoffs must again find a way to survive.
“This team has won two games in a row before,” Sale said. “Our back is up against the wall, and that’s kind of where we’ve been for a while with our whole year.”
Game 6 is at 8:08 p.m. on Friday in Houston. The Sox will start Nate Eovaldi with their season on the line. If they win, a deciding Game 7 comes Saturday night.
“We’ve got the right guy on the mound for Game 6,” Cora said.
Sale was the right guy for much of Game 5. He retired the side in order in the first inning, hitting 96.8 miles per hour with his fastball. That had the sellout crowd of 37,599 roaring.
They quieted a bit when Yordan Alvarez connected on a first-pitch fastball leading off the second inning and homered to left field.
Sale retired the next seven in a row, four by strikeout, before Alex Bregman walked in the fourth inning and went to third on Alvarez’s single.
Sale responded by striking out Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker. When Tucker flailed at a 98.5-m.p.h. fastball to end the threat, Sale jumped off the mound and pumped his fist as the crowd shook Fenway.
It was the fastest pitch Sale had thrown since 2018.
A quick fifth inning had Sale at 79 pitches and his job seemingly done with the Houston order coming up for a third time. That is usually a flashing red light for any manager and has been for Cora throughout the postseason.
But Sale came back out of the dugout for the sixth.
“He was throwing the ball great. There was some weak contact throughout the night. He was in command,” Cora said.
All true. But disaster followed.
With no reliever warming up, Jose Altuve drew a five-pitch walk. Michael Brantley, who had struck out twice, topped a ball to the left side of the mound.
Rafael Devers raced in to make the play, but Kyle Schwarber dropped the throw, distracted by Altuve heading to third.
With runners on the corners, Sale retired Bregman on a ball back to the mound.
With Alvarez up again, surely it was time for a reliever. The 24-year-old lefthanded hitter from Cuba was 3 for 3 with a sacrifice fly against Sale in the series to that point.
But Cora preferred to stick with the lefty-lefty matchup.
“He is Chris Sale. He is a lefty. He has made a living getting lefties out,” the manager said.
Alvarez wants a piece of that pie. He again hunted a first-pitch fastball and again went the other way with it for a two-run double.
“Whenever Sale got in trouble, he found a way to strike guys out. All except Alvarez,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
With the Sox down, 3-0, only then did Ryan Brasier come in. By then it was too late.
Tucker’s two-out single kept the inning alive. Yuli Gurriel’s double to right field scored Alvarez.
Then the Astros finished off the Sox, a soft single by Jose Siri to right field driving in two more. That made it a five-run inning and a 6-0 lead.
Sale was charged with four runs, two earned, over 5⅓ innings. He allowed three hits — all by Alvarez — and struck out seven with two walks.
“I had to leave everything out there,” Sale said. “I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do, obviously didn’t get it done.”
Framber Valdez reset the overworked Astros bullpen by pitching eight brilliant innings, allowing one run on three hits with one walk and five strikeouts.
The lefthander got 15 outs on the ground, commanding his sinker so effectively the Sox couldn’t square it up.
Valdez retired the first 12 batters, eight on ground balls. The Sox had a chance to get him the lead in the fifth inning when Devers singled and J.D. Martinez was hit by a pitch.
But slumping Hunter Renfroe grounded into a double play and Alex Verdugo grounded to first.
The Sox broke a string of 14 scoreless innings in the seventh when Devers homered to right field. That hardly mattered.
The 2018 Sox won three in a row in Houston to clinch the pennant. This team needs two.
“So why not this year, too?” Christian Vázquez said. “I think they have a great team, but I like my team. I don’t doubt my team.”