Where did all the good mojo go?
Was it Eduardo Rodriguez taunting Carlos Correa after retiring Houston’s leader with the Sox romping, 9-3, in Game 3? Was it one too many showoff laundry cart rides when the living was easy with three grand slams and back-to-back, 9-0 leads in Games 2 and 3? Was it when we were all debating “Braves or Dodgers?’’ as the potential next tomato can in another inexorable Sox march to a World Series championship?
None of that really matters at this hour. What matters is all the feel-good fuzziness around the ’21 Red Sox dissolved in a stretch of 20 hours over two nights at Fenway as the still-proud, no-longer cheatin’ (as far as we know) Astros came back from two humiliations and reminded the Red Sox, “We’re still here.’’
Houston beat the Sox, 9-1, at Fenway Wednesday to take a three-games-to-two lead in this 2021 ALCS. The Astros have outscored your Red Sox, 17-1, since the eighth inning of Game 4.
The Sox suddenly look like middle-aged Joe Hardy after his Faustian bargain expires in “Damn Yankees.” Alex Cora has misplaced his genius cap, the vaunted Boston lineup is stone cold (Kiké Hernández is no longer The Greatest Player in Baseball History), and Sox standard sloppy defense — magically disguised for eight postseason games — has reared its ugly head. If you watched the Red Sox a lot this year, the last two days are not a surprise. We saw a lot of this in the roller-coaster ride of Boston’s 2021 baseball summer.
Front-runner fans who ignored this team all season and hopped on board when the Sox smoked the Astros in back-to-back routs no doubt are stunned by all of this. It looked so easy for a few days earlier this week.
Fenway fans were juiced when they arrived at the ancient yard for Wednesday’s 5:10 start. The once-great Chris Sale was on the mound and there was hope he could give the Sox a three-games-to-two series lead and send them to Houston with a chance to close it out Friday at Minute Maid Park.
Sale breezed through the first inning, 1-2-3, getting Michael Brantley on a swinging third strike and throwing only nine pitches. It was interesting to note the positioning of umpire Laz Diaz. One night after his hideous performance behind the plate in Game 4, Diaz rotated to right-field duty and stationed himself just a few feet behind first base ump Alan Porter. It was probably a good idea to keep some distance from the blood-thirsty Fenway mob.
Houston’s McCovey-esque DH Yordan Alvarez (three hits, all to left, the opposite field) gave the ‘Stros a 1-0 lead with a homer into the Monster Seats leading off the second. Despite the gopher ball, Sale looked a lot more like his old self and got through the first two innings on 28 pitches. Sox catcher Christian Vázquez said it was the best he’d seen Sale since pre-Tommy John surgery in 2019.
Meanwhile, Astros lefthander Framber Valdez, part of Houston’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse who started the first four games of this series (none of them finished the third inning), cruised through the first five innings, allowing only one hit. He wound up going eight full innings, which makes him the Iron Man Joe McGinnity of 2021 postseason baseball.
Cora went too long with Sale, who was at 79 pitches, still trailing only 1-0 to start the sixth. He said it wasn’t really a debate and he didn’t fear Sale facing this lineup for a third time.
After a leadoff walk to Jose Altuve and a dropped throw by first baseman Kyle Schwarber (you knew it would catch up to the Sox sooner or later), Alvarez doubled to left to make it 3-0. Sale was lifted in favor of head-tilting Ryan Brasier, who surrendered an RBI double down the right-field line.
Jail break. Again. The Astros batted around and led, 6-0, after six. When Houston scored again in the seventh, the ‘Stros had a 15-0 lead over the Red Sox since the eighth inning of Game 4.
Rafael Devers put Boston on the board with a solo homer in the seventh. True to form, the Sox rolled Devers across the dugout floor even though they’d just been outscored, 15-1, in the two biggest games of the season. Whee!
Nonsense aside, this series is not over. If we’ve established anything in this series, it’s that both teams can look great . . . and horrible. Game 6 is Friday in Houston and All-Star ace Nate Eovaldi gets the ball for Boston.
“We’ve got the right guy on the mound,’’ said Cora. “ . . . We have to win two games to get to the World Series. That’s the bottom line.’’
“I’ll pitch tomorrow if I have to,’’ said Sale. “I got nothing going on for six months . . . Everyone is available.”
Winning this series is still a possibility for the Red Sox. But it will not be easy.
Like Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own,” ”It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.