HOUSTON — The Red Sox season appeared to be an unqualified success back on Oct. 5 when they beat the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.
They overcame low expectations, injuries, and a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak in August to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, then beat their rivals at Fenway Park.
That’s a season to be proud of and one well ahead of schedule after finishing last in 2020.
But having a nice pile of house money doesn’t mean you want to throw it away. The Sox beat the 100-win Tampa Bay Rays in the Division Series then took two of the first three games of the ALCS against the Houston Astros with the next two games coming up at home.
Being two wins away from the World Series is a qualifier, a big giant one you can’t pretend doesn’t exist. It’s not easy to get to that point even under the best of circumstances. Just ask the Rays or the San Francisco Giants.
Such opportunities are precious, and the Red Sox wasted it. Their season came to an end Friday with a 5-0 loss against the Astros and if you’re looking for hosannas, you’re in the wrong place.
The Red Sox scored one run on nine hits in the last 26 innings of the series and were 0 for 17 with runners in scoring position. They were thoroughly outplayed by the Astros with the pennant at stake.
The Sox didn’t score in the final 11 innings of the season. This from a team that finished fourth in the American League with 5.12 runs per game.
With their season on the line, the Sox had two hits.
Or you can look at this way: The Sox had 10 hits in the last three games, one more than Houston designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, the series Most Valuable Player.
Cora was 17-5 in the postseason through Game 3 and the Red Sox had not lost two playoff games in a row under his watch. Now he’s 17-8.
Cora Magic had an expiration date. He stayed too long with Chris Sale in Game 5 and on Friday kept slumping Hunter Renfroe in right field at a time his struggling lineup needed something different.
Renfroe rewarded his manager with a popup to second and a strikeout before he was pinch-hit for in the eighth inning. Renfroe finished 1 for 16 in the series with eight strikeouts.
Cora also tried a hit-and-run with runners on first and third and one out in the seventh inning against Kendall Graveman. Travis Shaw struck out and Alex Verdugo was thrown out at second base.
It was the end of the inning and essentially the end of the season.
“I just bet on my players,” Cora said. “A 3-2 count. We put the ball in play against a sinker-baller, we score one.”
Maybe it was worth the risk to change the tenor of the game. But Verdugo had only six stolen bases all season and Houston catcher Martín Maldonado threw out 40 percent of base stealers, the third-best rate in the game.
In the end, Houston had the managerial advantage with Dusty Baker. The Astros roasted the Sox by an aggregate 23-3 over the final three games.
The Sox seemed to have every advantage on the pitching side after Game 3. But Baker and his pitching coach, Brent Strom, flipped that. The Astros cobbled together Game 4 then rode strong starts by Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia to the Series.
“They changed their script, and we knew it,” Cora said.
The Sox wasted good pitching on Friday. Nate Eovaldi allowed one run over 4⅓ innings and deserved better than being tagged with the loss.
Up 1-0, the Astros put runners on second and third with no outs. Eovaldi struck out Carlos Correa (slider), Kyle Tucker (curveball) and Chas McCormick (cutter) to end the threat.
That would have inspired a lot of teams. The Sox went in order the next inning with two strikeouts.
Credit to Garcia, who was magnificent after leaving Game 2 with what was said to be a sore right knee. He allowed one hit over 5⅔ innings.
The Sox never figured him out. There was a lot of that going around.
“We had bigger goals, but to be honest with you, I’m very proud of the group,” Cora said after addressing his players.
He should be proud. In time this season will be remembered as a precursor to something better. But for now it’s defined by letting a spot in the World Series slip away without much of a fight.