HOUSTON — The 2021 Red Sox somehow managed to turn implausibility into possibility, but never certainty. They neared excellence in a fashion that remained tenuous. And while they flirted with baseball’s ultimate accomplishment, the Red Sox fell just short of it.
Wildly surpassing any reasonable forecast, yet still ending the year with the pained disappointment shared by 29 teams.
The Red Sox fell to the Astros, 5-0, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. With the defeat, a team that proved allergic to quitting, securing a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season before advancing past the Yankees and Rays, saw its season come to an end, losing the best-of-seven series, 4-2.
The series ended in what would have been unthinkable fashion after the Sox erupted for 21 runs in Games 2 and 3. The team managed just three runs the next three games, including one in the final 26 innings of the series. Precise Astros pitching combined with a sledgehammer wielded by ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez — 4-for-4 in Game 6, .522 average and 1.408 OPS in the ALCS — allowed Houston to advance to its third World Series in five seasons.
“We had bigger goals, but to be honest with you, I’m very proud of this group,” said manager Alex Cora. “We just got beat by a great group of guys, a great team. . . . Obviously very disappointed we didn’t win this series, but we’re going to look back and be very proud.”
Astros starter Luis Garcia came out in the first inning with a blistering attack, topping out at a season-high 98 m.p.h. and looking nothing like the pitcher who exited after just one inning in Game 2. His stuff was so good that it nearly gifted the Red Sox a run.
Kyle Schwarber struck out to lead off the game, but reached first when Garcia’s cutter got past catcher Martín Maldonado for a wild pitch. Schwarber eventually reached third, but was stranded there.
While Garcia’s velocity was at new peaks, Sox starter Nate Eovaldi’s was diminished in the first inning. His fastball was at 95-96 m.p.h., down a click or two from its normal range, and the Astros came out swinging against him.
Alex Bregman’s soft two-out liner made it through the left side of the infield for a single. Cleanup hitter Alvarez then unloaded on a curveball, sending a roof-scraper to deep right-center. His 409-foot drive descended on the track in the deepest reaches of Minute Maid Park.
Kiké Hernández ran a mile to reach the ball at the fence, but at the end of his trek, it clanged off the heel of his glove. Bregman scored from first on the RBI double.
That 1-0 advantage looked monumental given Garcia. The righthander’s high-octane arsenal left the Sox somewhere between defensive and defenseless. Garcia cruised through five no-hit innings with his 96-97 mph fastball and a wipeout cutter, allowing just two runners — and none past first after Schwarber.
Garcia’s excellence left the Sox and Eovaldi in a position where they could permit the Astros no more runs, creating alarm when Houston opened the fourth with a single by Bregman and a double down the left-field line by Alvarez that put runners on second and third.
But with Minute Maid filled with ear-splitting anticipation, Eovaldi proved undaunted. The righthander — whose first five playoff starts dating to 2018 had all resulted in Red Sox victories — calmly struck out Carlos Correa on a slider and Kyle Tucker on a curve. After an intentional walk to load the bases, he fanned Chas McCormick on another curveball.
Having stranded three runners with his first three strikeouts of the game, Eovaldi shouted on his way to the dugout, the equivalent of a backflip for a less modest pitcher.
“I was hoping,” said Eovaldi, “that would be the inning that got us back in the game.”
It didn’t, and Eovaldi’s outing soon concluded. Cora summoned reliever Josh Taylor with one out and one on in the fifth, the first time in Eovaldi’s playoff career he did not complete five frames. Even so, the performance in the elimination game was impressive, with Eovaldi limiting the harm from five hits to one run over 4⅓ innings — a final line secured when Taylor recorded two outs to end the fifth.
Garcia, meanwhile, carried his no-hitter into the sixth before faltering in his third trip through the Sox lineup. Schwarber drilled a 96-mph fastball to deep left-center, tantalized by the proximity of the Crawford Boxes. His drive was deep enough to reach those seats, but descended just to the right of them in left-center for the second out.
One batter later, Hernández drilled a fastball to deep left-center. Like Schwarber’s shot, his smash high off the signage above the Sox bullpen was one of unfortunate placement, as it would’ve cleared the lower fence in deep left-center had it been slightly more to the right. Instead, it caromed off the wall for a triple.
The first hit of the game allowed by Garcia was also the last, as Dusty Baker summoned righthander Phil Maton to end the threat. Maton did just that against Rafael Devers, getting a first-pitch pop-up to short.
The Astros secured an insurance run in the sixth when (who else?) Alvarez drilled a Taylor slider into the right-field corner for a leadoff triple. Tanner Houck came on and walked Correa to put runners on the corners. He then got a nearly perfect outcome — a bullet hit to Schwarber at first.
The first baseman short-hopped it, but stumbled. Alvarez initially held, but when Schwarber turned to make a lunging tag of Correa, the Astros slugger broke for home. Schwarber tagged Correa and stomped on first for a double play, but his throw home was late. Alvarez scored as Houston took a 2-0 lead.
Finally, the Red Sox seemed poised to break through in the seventh against Houston reliever Kendall Graveman. A one-out J.D. Martinez walk was followed by an Alex Verdugo single to put runners on the corners. But pinch-hitter Travis Shaw swung through a full-count fastball, and Maldonado cut down Verdugo at second on a broken hit-and-run, a crushing, inning-ending double play.
A Tucker three-run homer in the eighth off Adam Ottavino ended any drama. Minute Maid erupted in celebration, an AL pennant for the Astros a when-not-if proposition. The “when” arrived at 10:37 p.m. Central time, when Xander Bogaerts lined out to left off closer Ryan Pressly, sending Astros pouring onto the field.
The Sox suffered the first ALCS Game 6 loss in franchise history. Thus concluded a series that served in many ways as a microcosm for the season, a run of reversals that proved ultimately jarring and thrilling, while providing — the Red Sox hope — a platform for a still-forming core to compete in Octobers to come.
“No one expected us to be here. We proved a lot of people wrong. We believed in ourselves as a team and overcame a lot of obstacles,” said Eovaldi. “Having this bitter taste in our mouth is going to be good motivation for next year [and] moving forward.”