HOUSTON — This was the top of the fifth inning Friday night, a few hours before the Red Sox season would come to its official end, but just after Nate Eovaldi had kept the improbable dream alive with a Houdini-worthy pitching escape.
In the bottom of the fourth, the ace of the Boston pitching staff blasted his way out of a two-on, no-out jam by striking out Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker, issuing an intentional walk to Yuli Gurriel and then striking out Chas McCormick. It was a performance fueled by equal parts guts and heart, one that would surely wake his teammates’ bats from their slumber.
Alex Verdugo seemed to heed the call, but his scorching line drive went straight at third baseman Alex Bregman. With one out, up came Christian Arroyo, and on one wild swing, he seemed to encapsulate everything this ALCS became for the Red Sox. Arroyo’s bat slipped out of his hands, hurtling all the way down the third base line, crashing so hard into the protective netting that a fan pulled it through to the other side for a rare souvenir, much to the delight of the home crowd.
It was as if they knew. The series, like that bat, had just slipped from the Red Sox’ grip.
Before long, the Astros were dancing on the grass at Minute Maid Park while the Red Sox trudged to the visitors’ dugout. While the Astros erupted in glee, high-fiving and hugging their way through the roster as workers wheeled a championship platform onto the infield and champagne bottles were uncorking in the clubhouse, the Red Sox headed down a tunnel and toward a somber locker room, left to wonder how it had all gone wrong.
Not just in this decisive Game 6, which they lost, 5-0. But in this ALCS, which had felt so firmly in their grip after three games, when they were scoring runs at will, held a 2-1 lead, and were looking at two more games at Fenway Park to make it to the World Series. Three straight losses later, it was all over.
“We were able to write a great story this season,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted.”
How it all came crashing down will haunt the team’s offseason. That’s the way it works in sports, when opportunities are fleeting and nothing is guaranteed. Just listen to outfielder Kiké Hernández, whose offensive fireworks early in the series faded down the stretch, but worse, whose defensive magic also seemed to leave him in the first inning Friday. The Astros took a 1-0 lead on Yordan Alvarez’s booming double to right-center, and with all three outfielders shading the opposite way, a sprinting Hernandez got his glove on it but couldn’t hang on.
Bregman, who’d reached on a two-out single, scored.
“I thought about it for nine innings,” a despondent Hernández said, “and I still think if I catch that ball it’s a different ballgame.”
But with the Sox bats having gone so quiet, that one run felt like a hundred. As the valiant Eovaldi put it, “He drove that ball to center, and once we were down one, we kind of had our backs against the wall.”
Like the Arroyo at-bat, which would end up as one of seven strikeouts by a dominant Luis Garcia, Hernández’s non-catch was one of the list of plays that dictated Friday’s outcome. A first-pitch popup by Rafael Devers in the sixth, top of the fifth, just after Hernández’s triple, the first Red Sox hit of the game, chased Garcia. Devers made life way too easy for reliever Phil Maton, who stranded Hernández at third. A nifty unassisted double play in the bottom of the inning by first baseman Kyle Schwarber, but a play on which he admitted he should have done a better job holding Alvarez at third. Alvarez scored Houston’s second run, which felt like 200.
Was this really the same team that had scored nine runs in Game 2, 12 more in Game 3, that opened this series playing baseball with precision and purpose, doing all the little things right from backing up on defense to working deep into the count?
That magic evaporated from top to bottom, starting with manager Alex Cora, whose combination of instinct and logic had pushed these unlikely warriors this far, but seemed to run dry these past three games. Sticking with Chris Sale an inning too long in Game 5, going to Adam Ottavino in the eighth Friday (he gave up a three-run homer to Kyle Tucker to land the death blow), or sending Verdugo from first in the seventh with pinch hitter Travis Shaw at the plate and J.D. Martinez at third, and then having it backfire with a scintillating strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play from catcher Martín Maldonado.
The breaks stopped going the Red Sox’ way. Martinez not getting a break on a crucial called third strike at the plate; Eovaldi not getting a break on a crucial called ball on the mound. Eduardo Rodriguez taunting the karma gods with his “my time” mimic of Correa. Creating so much traffic on the basepaths in Game 4 but going 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
And so the Sox were left to lament what might have been, caught in that maddening middle ground between celebrating such unexpected success while regretting the inability to take it all the way.
“We did an amazing job during the season. We just got beat at the end,” Cora said. “When we look back at everything that we went through, the thoughts of this team early in the season, it’s just amazing. It was a great year. Obviously, we’re very disappointed that we didn’t win this series, but we’re going to look back and we’re going to be very proud of the group, the organization, and everybody that got to be part of this.”