It’s not an accident that the ALCS games are moving, to paraphrase Dennis Eckersley, at the speed of stink.
One day after the Red Sox set a team record for their most walks in a nine-inning game by issuing 10 free passes in a 7-2 Game 1 loss, the pitchers walked another five Astros in the 7-5 Game 2 victory. As much as walks can be taken as evidence of a deficiency on the part of those who issue them, the Red Sox aren’t about to apologize for what has transpired.
The Astros, of course, carry quick-strike capability up and down the lineup. As Josh Reddick’s homer from the No. 9 spot in the lineup against Brandon Workman in Game 1 attests, virtually all of their players possess the ability to drive the ball out of the park.
Reliever Ryan Brasier raised some eyebrows, but was nonetheless accurate, in claiming that “some of the walks we had [in Game 1] were smart pitching . . . We don’t want to go up there and throw first pitches right down the middle just to get ahead.”
Command and control are two separate pitching traits. Control represents the general ability to pitch in the strike zone; command is pitching to specific spots. The Sox want their pitchers in the postseason to command their pitches to very precise spots, even at the potential expense of control.
The Red Sox are pitching to very specific game plans for the Astros lineup. Manager Alex Cora has talked about the Red Sox’ determination to “pitch to the blue,” referring to the cold zones on scouting heat maps that indicate where opposing hitters struggle, as opposed to the red areas that indicate hot zones where opponents tend to inflict the greatest harm on pitches. To his line of thinking, it’s better to target the blue and, if missing a spot, miss off the plate rather than in an area where Houston’s hitters can send a ball into orbit.
“We’re really good when we keep the ball in the ballpark. I think everybody in the big leagues, when they do that they have a better chance,” said Cora. “We do feel that we get spots that we can attack, and we’re going to get either swings and misses or we’re going to induce them to weak contact. At the same time, if you make mistakes to what we call the red part of the heat map, they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Chris Sale’s four-inning, two-run outing in Game 1 — in which he walked four and hit a batter but only allowed two runs on one hit (a grounder under the glove of Eduardo Nunez) while featuring an arsenal of almost nothing — embodied the stubbornness with which the Red Sox are willing to pitch. David Price similarly showed little remorse for the four walks he issued in Game 2, suggesting he “just missed” his spot on several pitches.
“I’d rather miss where I did as opposed to the middle of the plate,” said Price.
The Sox have also clearly made a decision not to let Alex Bregman beat them. In 10 trips to the plate through two games, the team has walked him six times and hit him once, working to (and off) the edges of the plate against a hitter who has shown a penchant for going deep against just about any caliber of pitcher.
Right now, the team has made a choice: They’d rather risk walks than homers. Their frustration coming out of Game 1 was less with free passes than with the fastballs where Brandon Workman missed over the plate (resulting in a pair of homers that broke open Game 1 in the ninth inning), in situations where the team wanted him to throw breaking balls.
“Everyone can say we had 10 walks, but where were we at that point? We were in the game. We had a chance in the ninth being down one,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “We’ve got two hits on the board. We’re down 3-2, and we have 10 walks and three hit batsman, but we’re making pitches when we have to, getting out of innings, staying in the game. We’re competing to the very end.”
The Red Sox remain committed to proceeding in that fashion moving forward — though it’s worth noting that scheduled Game 3 and Game 4 starters Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello have shown the ability to command their pitches in the strike zone to an exceptional degree thus far, staying out of the red without issuing walks. That’s a combination the Red Sox would love to feature going forward, but so far this series, the team isn’t apologizing for how it’s approached an explosive Astros lineup en route to a split of the first two games of the ALCS.