HOUSTON — Good postseason series take on not one character but several, the dynamics shifting in dizzying fashion that can feel like a succession of hairpin turns on a mountain drive.
A regular-season three-game series is very different from a postseason five-game series, which is very different from a best-of-seven series. The repeated exposure of one group of pitchers to another team necessitates ongoing adjustments that can transform playoff matchups.
The Red Sox-Astros ALCS now feels like an amalgamation of three series. Game 1, a 5-4 Astros win, represented a missed opportunity for the Sox and a reminder of the way that the Houston lineup can pounce at any time. Games 2 and 3 were Red Sox blowout wins that represented the continuation of a history-making stretch for their offense. Games 4 and 5 represented a drastic reversal, with the Sox managing just three runs while the Astros erupted at one point for 15 straight runs.
So, what next? That is unknowable, but given the undulations of the first five games, it’s not hard to understand why the Red Sox betrayed little agitation as they got ready to board a Thursday afternoon flight back to Houston.
“We kind of knew this was going to happen. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Not with a team like [the Astros],” said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. “[But] I’m not doubting our offense.”
The Red Sox demonstrated over their 21-run explosion in Games 2 and 3 that their offense was capable of dominance. Yet the reason underlying their high scoring, the Sox insisted, was not just that they cleared the fences seven times, but that they had plenty of runners on base when they did so.
Five of the homers came with runners on base, including their record-setting three grand slams. The Red Sox felt that their controlled approach, with a willingness to take walks and shoot hits to the opposite field, served as the basis for their rallies, one batter setting up the next.
In Games 4 and 5, the Sox saw that approach break down. At times, they looked like they were trying to force hard contact, resulting in an endless succession of popups and harmless fly balls in Game 4 and an incredible run of ground balls in Game 5 — a reflection partly of the incredible sinker of Framber Valdez but also of an approach where batters tried to pull pitches that were darting away from them.
“For six, seven days, we were one of the best [postseason] offensive teams ever, and then you go two games cold,” said Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. “It really sucks, the timing of it, because they were really important games … [But] we still have Game 6, and Game 7 hopefully the next day. We can still get hot. We’ve done it before.”
|Game 1||7-for-18, .389 (.778 SLG)||1-for-9, .111 (.222 SLG)|
|Game 2||6-for-23, .261 (.478 SLG)||3-for-10, .300 (.900 SLG)|
|Game 3||4-for-21, .190 (.333 SLG)||3-for-7, .429 (.857 SLG)|
|Game 4||3-for-16, .188 (.375 SLG)||0-for-9, .000 (.000 SLG)|
|Game 5||3-for-23, .130 (.304 SLG)||0-for-4, .000 (.000 SLG)|
Throughout the series, the teams have had remarkably similar performances with the bases empty. The Astros are 22 for 101 (.218), while the Sox are 23 for 101 (.228). The great separator has been the performance with runners in scoring position.
Both teams struggled in such moments in Game 1. In Games 2 and 3, the Astros had few opportunities, while the Red Sox capitalized on their frequent presence on the bases. (Four-run homers, it turns out, are a great strategy for winning.)
Then, in Games 4 and 5, the Sox went a combined 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position. The Astros, meanwhile, amassed relentless rallies, going 11 for 24 — most notably in their seven-run ninth inning of Game 4 and their five-run sixth inning in Game 5.
“We haven’t been able to stop their fast-break offense,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “When they get going, they get going. They don’t stop swinging, and that’s something we recognize.
“With men in scoring position, for X or Y reason, they become Hall of Famers as a team. They’re average with nobody on, but with men in scoring position, they’re Hall of Famers. So we’ve got to make sure we bring them back to earth and we stop what they’re doing.”
But how? Cora mentioned the word “adjustments” seven times in a roughly 10-minute media session on Thursday, so it seems safe to assume the Red Sox are looking to tweak their plan of attack.
|Game 1||5-for-15, .333 (.533 SLG)||0-for-7, .000 (.000 SLG)|
|Game 2||4-for-25, .160 (.400 SLG)||2-for3, .667 (1.000 SLG)|
|Game 3||3-for-20, .150 (.150 SLG)||1-for-2, .500 (2.000 SLG)|
|Game 4||7-for-24, .304 (.609 SLG)||5-for-9, .556 (.667 SLG)|
|Game 5||3-for-18, .167 (.333 SLG)||6-for-15, .400 (.533 SLG)|
For starters, the Sox seem like they’d be well-served to do a better job of mixing pitches. With runners in scoring position, they have thrown 53.7 percent fastballs in the ALCS, most of the four teams still standing. The Astros are hitting .429 and slugging .571 against Red Sox fastballs with runners in scoring position.
It was particularly surprising to see the Sox pump one fastball after another to Yordan Alvarez in Game 5. His swing was grooved to clobber fastballs to the opposite field, while Chris Sale locked him up with the one slider he threw. Catcher Christian Vázquez acknowledged after the game that he would have liked a do-over on his call for a first-pitch fastball with two on and two out in the sixth.
The Sox may start pitching around Alvarez (hitting .421 with a 1.086 OPS in the series) and likewise working more carefully to Yuli Gurriel (.474, 1.208).
“We need to stop their fast-break offense with men in scoring position, make them normal humans, not Hall of Famers,” said Cora. “There are certain guys that, they’re not going to beat us tomorrow. There are other guys that have to step up for them.”
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have seen that they cannot afford lapses against a deep, talented Astros lineup. Leadoff walks (including the one issued by Sale to José Altuve) and defensive misplays (such as Kyle Schwarber dropping a throw at first base) are gas on the grill for Houston. The Sox have to return to the sharp form they showed in Games 2 and 3 if they are to extend the series.
Slowing the Astros’ “fast-break offense” is only part of the equation. All year, the Red Sox have been geared to win by holding opponents to a modest run total (usually three or four). They were 82-18 when scoring at least four runs, and just 10-52 when held to three or fewer.
The postseason has continued the pattern. The Sox are 6-1 when scoring at least four runs, and 0-3 when not. They have to return to a combination of the “humble” at-bats that Cora has celebrated as a means of setting up the sustained rallies they require to win.
Easier said than done but the Sox recognize that they are capable of playing at the level that would create another zag in a series that has changed course multiple times.
“We won three in a row at one point in the playoffs,” noted Cora, recalling the trio of wins against the Rays in the ALDS. “Our goal is to go out [Friday] and put out a whole baseball game, win, and move on to the next one. And if we do the same thing [in Game 7], we’ll be in the World Series.”