The two best teams in baseball advanced to the American League Championship Series. Only one of them showed up at Fenway Park for Game 1 on Saturday night.
The Red Sox played one of their worst games of the season at the most inopportune time and were beaten, 7-2.
Justin Verlander and three relievers held the Sox to three hits, all singles. Sox pitchers walked 10, the most in a nine-inning postseason game in franchise history, and hit three.
Chris Sale was one of the biggest offenders, his lack of command contributing to Houston taking an early lead.
Poor defense at third base, an issue all season, was another factor. Two mistakes by third baseman Eduardo Nunez led to three Houston runs.
“Everywhere,” said J.D. Martinez when asked where things went wrong.
Now the Sox will put the series in the hands of Game 2 starter David Price on Sunday night. He is 0-9 with a 6.03 earned run average in 10 career playoff starts and couldn’t get through the second inning of his Division Series start against the Yankees.
All that fun eliminating the Yankees didn’t last long.
Manager Alex Cora missed much of the game after being ejected in the fifth inning. It couldn’t have been any better on television.
“It’s kind of like embarrassing that it happens in the playoffs,” Cora said. “That wasn’t cool watching the game in the clubhouse. I got a job to do and manage the team in the dugout.”
On a night when everything was a mess, the Sox trailed only 3-2 going into the ninth inning.
Brandon Workman ruined any hopes of a comeback, allowing a solo home run to right-center by former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick, then a three-run Pesky Pole special by Yuli Gurriel after two walks.
The crowd started to boo Workman off the field, then decided to just flee for the exits.
Cora defended the decision not to use Craig Kimbrel in the ninth to keep the game close, saying he had faith in Workman. But that backfired as even the manger had a bad game after making all the right moves against the Yankees.
“We didn’t get the job done; didn’t play well as a team,” Jackie Bradley Jr. said.
It was a mundane game. There were 20 strikeouts, 14 walks, 3 hit batters, 2 errors, and 2 wild pitches.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night came in the eighth inning when Jake Marisnick stole second base for Houston and the throw from Sox catcher Christian Vazquez hit immobile umpire Joe West on the right shoulder.
Sale allowed only one hit over four innings but walked four, hit a batter, and threw 50 of 86 pitches for strikes in an uncharacteristically wild outing.
That mess enabled the Astros to take a 2-0 lead.
Pitching in short sleeves on a 50-degree night, Sale averaged only 91.7 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball and had wildly inconsistent command of his slider.
“He only had a fastball at the beginning,” catcher Sandy Leon said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that.”
The second inning was a troubling one for Sale, who at one point lost the ability to throw a strike.
With two outs, he walked Carlos Correa. The last two pitches were far outside. Sale then threw his hardest fastball of the night — 96 m.p.h. — on a 2-and-2 count to Martin Maldonado and hit him.
Sale walked the lefthanded-hitting Reddick on five pitches to load the bases.
Sale got ahead of George Springer, 0-and-2, but could not put him away. Springer hit a full-count fastball hard on the ground to third base, the ball getting under Nunez’s glove for a two-run single.
“Routine groundball double play, he didn’t make the play,” Cora said.
Said Nunez: “I think I had a chance. He hit it hard, but I have to stop it.”
Sale threw 33 pitches in the inning, 16 for strikes. The Astros swung and missed at only two of 69 pitches in the first three innings.
Sale retired five of the final six batters he faced, regaining command of his slider and keeping the Sox in the game.
It was just the fourth time in 292 career games, counting the postseason, that Sale had four or more walks and hit a batter. He had worked at least six innings in the previous three.
The four walks also matched his most in a game for the Red Sox.
Down 2-0, the Sox scored twice against Verlander in the fifth inning.
With a runner on first and one out, Verlander walked Nunez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and pinch hitter Mitch Moreland in succession to force in a run. The three walks came on 15 pitches as the crowd finally got into the game.
Mookie Betts (4 for 20 in the playoffs) swung at the first pitch he saw, a fastball over the plate, but grounded to third and the Astros got the out at the plate.
“Fastball middle-middle. Can’t miss that pitch,” Betts said.
With Andrew Benintendi up, Verlander threw a wild pitch and Bradley scored to tie the game as he read the breaking ball in the dirt and got a quick jump from third base.
Benintendi was then called out looking at a fastball off the outside corner. He fired down his bat and helmet in protest and had to be prodded away from umpire James Hoye.
“I had kind of lost my feel a bit. Couldn’t point a finger to why. But just to be able to execute a pitch there and get out of the inning,” Verlander said.
Cora was then ejected for the second time this season and went out on the field to continue shouting at Hoye.
“Andrew didn’t agree. I didn’t agree. It’s a big pitch right there. It’s ball four, bases loaded,” Cora said. “I’ve got to do what I have to do for my players.”
The Astros took the lead back in the sixth.
Joe Kelly hit Alex Bregman with a fastball. Gurriel then grounded to third base for what should have started a double play. But Nunez dropped the ball.
Bregman scored on a two-out single by Correa.
Verlander went six innings and allowed two runs on two hits with four walks and six strikeouts.