HOUSTON — Thus far, the clash of the titans has been a lopsided endeavor.
The Red Sox offense, the best in baseball over the regular season, once again came out ahead in its battle with the most dominant pitching staff in baseball. With an 8-6 victory over the Astros in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox not only took a 3-1 lead to move within a game of the World Series but also demonstrated an explosive offense that even elite pitching has failed to slow.
The Red Sox have scored seven, eight, and eight runs against Houston – a team that in 2018 allowed the fewest runs of any American League club since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. In fact, the Astros hadn’t had a single instance during the regular season in which they’d allowed as many as six runs in each of three consecutive games.
The top-to-bottom strength of the lineup was further highlighted by the continuation of a standout American League Championship Series out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup for Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley jumped on a first-pitch, middle-middle changeup against Astros reliever Josh James in the top of the sixth inning for a soaring two-run homer to right that transformed a 5-4 deficit into the 6-5 lead. The center fielder now has three hits in the ALCS — which have resulted in nine runs, good for the third most runs batted in ever by a Red Sox in an LCS.
That strong showing has put the Red Sox in strong position. In League Championship Series history, 31 of 38 teams (82 percent) that claimed a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series have advanced to the World Series. Only three American League teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS: The 1986, 2004, and 2007 Red Sox.
THE’VE SET THE STAGE: For all the skepticism about the state of Red Sox middle relievers entering October, the group has been dominant for much of the series — with particularly impressive performances from Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes. Brasier now has seven scoreless innings across seven games this postseason after delivering five critical outs in the sixth and seventh innings in Game 4, while Barnes now has 5⅔ hitless, scoreless innings this postseason after striking out the only batter he faced in a pivotal two-on, two-out situation.
The work of Joe Kelly (one inning, one run), Brasier, and Barnes allowed the Red Sox to run a relay across the final five innings after a four-inning outing for Rick Porcello, and continued a period in which the Red Sox middle relievers have helped anchor the team’s October success.
THE RED SOX HAVE A KIMBREL PROBLEM: Unexpectedly, the weak link of the Boston bullpen has been the pitcher who seemed like the most reliable member of it. Craig Kimbrel, entrusted with a three-run lead while asked to record a six-out save for the first time of his career, managed to do so – but barely. He allowed a run in the eighth, then loaded the bases in the ninth before Andrew Benintendi’s remarkable diving catch of an Alex Bregman liner ended the game with the go-ahead run on first. The fact that David Price warmed in the eighth and ninth innings behind Kimbrel suggests that the Red Sox’ game-ending bullpen structure is far from settled moving forward.
Kimbrel has appeared in four games this postseason and allowed runs in all of them. It marks the first time in his career (regular season or playoffs) that he’s allowed runs in four straight games.
KEEPING THEM ON THEIR HEELS: For the third straight game, the Red Sox scored two runs in the first inning to take an immediate lead. The Sox are now 6-0 this postseason when scoring first, 0-2 when they fall behind.
#FEATSOFGOODFORTUNE: The game pivoted in dramatic fashion in the first, after the Red Sox jumped out to a 2-0 lead. With one on and one out, Jose Altuve drove a ball to the fence in right field. Mookie Betts timed it well but his leaping attempt at the ball came up empty, as his glove was closed shut when it collided with a fan reaching for the ball. Though the ball may have been over the fence — in which case, fan pursuit of it would have been fair game — crew chief Joe West ruled the play fan interference, and replay couldn’t definitively overturn the initial interpretation that the ball had been in the field of play when the fan hindered Betts’s attempt to catch it. What could have been a two-run homer instead turned into an out in a scoreless first – a play of tremendous significance.
Betts later had another huge defensive play, this one unquestioned, when he raced to Tony Kemp’s liner down the right-field line to lead off the bottom of the eighth and gunned down the speedy Kemp with a perfect throw to second. That out proved pivotal given that Kimbrel hit the next batter (Bregman) and allowed a double to George Springer. Betts’s play thus saved at least one run and possibly more.