The game fell apart in the ninth inning, but a look back at what went wrong for the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALCS Tuesday probably should go back to the third inning.
The Sox already had chased Astros starter Zack Greinke (an inning earlier, in fact) and with the third Houston pitcher coming to the mound in Cristian Javier, opportunity was knocking. And a rally appeared to be brewing.
With one out, Alex Verdugo walked. Up came J.D. Martinez, who worked his way to a 3-and-2 count, and appeared to earn his own free pass when Javier’s seventh pitch of the at-bat, a 94.6-mile-per-hour fastball, sailed outside.
Martinez made a move toward first. Astros catcher Martín Maldonado watched Verdugo, who was running on the play, sprint toward second. He made no throw on the play, with Martinez apparently ready to join Verdugo on the basepaths.
But as it turned out, home plate umpire Laz Diaz had called Martinez out on strikes, and the complexion of the inning changed. From two on and one out to one on and two outs, the rally fizzled, ending on Hunter Renfroe’s ensuing strikeout.
Martinez was incensed, as was manager Alex Cora.
“I didn’t agree with the J.D. call,” said Cora, who emerged from the dugout to make sure Diaz knew just how much he didn’t agree with the call. “The way the catcher reacted to the whole thing, I think we thought it was a ball; he thought it was a strike. We didn’t agree with that one.
“If it’s a strike, it changes the whole thing, right?”
Perhaps. It did change things for the Red Sox anyway, just not in the way they would have liked.
From there, the home offense fizzled too, with the Boston bats just as much the culprits as the pitching meltdowns in the eighth and ninth innings, in which the Astros turned a 2-1 deficit into a 9-2 win.
Despite scoring runs seemingly at will across Games 2 and 3, the Red Sox struggled to do the same Tuesday. They drew seven walks but went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. The inability to cash in early came back and bit them late.
“I know we only had three or four hits, but we had traffic the whole time,” Cora said. “We had chances. I think we had chances early in the game, too, but, I mean, we’ve been so good for so long that you are going to have games like that.
“But approach-wise, you know, seven walks is great. Overall, we didn’t get hits. We didn’t produce much, but I think the approach was good.”
The first inning seemed to portend another good night. The Red Sox found themselves in unfamiliar territory in the top half of the frame, trailing by a run after Alex Bregman’s two-out solo homer into the seats above the Green Monster.
The early-series script took a familiar turn in the bottom of the inning, however, when Xander Bogaerts did Bregman one better, putting a two-out ball over the Monster, and doing it with Rafael Devers on base.
Despite adding two more runners in the inning — Verdugo reaching on an error and Martinez drawing a walk — that would be the end of their scoring.
Not for lack of opportunity, though. In addition to stranding those runners in the first, the Sox left two on in the second, stranded Verdugo in that controversial third, wasted a one-out triple from Christian Arroyo in the fourth (a ground out by Kyle Schwarber followed by a popup from Kiké Hernández), and couldn’t cash in on a one-out double by Bogaerts in the fifth or a leadoff walk by Renfroe in the sixth. That’s a recipe for disaster.
“They did an outstanding job with the bullpen,” Cora said. “We didn’t do enough offensively, and now we go to Game 5.”