HOUSTON — Craig Kimbrel spun around after he threw the pitch, momentarily convinced he had given up a hit that was going to cost his team the game.
“It was sinking real fast,” the Red Sox closer said.
But Andrew Benintendi was racing directly toward the ball, the left fielder having gotten a quick break when he saw Houston’s Alex Bregman make contact.
“I think it was in on him a little bit, so it kind of hung up there,” Benintendi said. “I thought I had a good jump and could dive and make the play.”
Benintendi extended his right arm, and the ball nestled safely in his glove. As he lay prone on the grass of Minute Maid Park, he raised his arm to show the umpire he had made the most important catch of his career.
In a radio booth behind home plate, Joe Castiglione fell out of his chair in excitement as he called the final out of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, an 8-6 victory for the Red Sox Wednesday night.
It was that way on the field, too, the Red Sox looking at each other with expressions ranging from joy to disbelief.
“That was probably the most excited I’ve ever been after a catch,” Benintendi said. “I kind of blacked out. I had no idea what was going on.”
But he knew what it meant. The catch gave the Sox a 3-1 series lead, and now, they are one game away from the World Series. Game 5 is here Thursday night at 8:09 p.m.
David Price will start on three days’ rest against Justin Verlander.
“Start tomorrow and do something special,” said Price, who was smiling widely as he held his son, Xavier, in a joyous clubhouse. “That’s cool, very cool. I feel like I’ve been on a lot of good teams. But this team, I still don’t know what we don’t do well.”
Manager Alex Cora, who turned 43 over the course of what was a 4-hour-33-minute game, was oddly calm afterward. He allowed Kimbrel to throw 35 pitches, his most this season, despite the righthander putting six men on base over two tension-filled innings.
“We knew all along that something like this was going to come up, and we trust our guy,” Cora said. “He threw well. I know it didn’t look pretty, but we got 27 outs, and now we move on.”
The Red Sox are 6-2 in the postseason, with Kimbrel picking up four largely undeserved saves. He has allowed five runs on six hits and five walks, with two hit batters and a wild pitch mixed in. Of his 101 pitches, only 56 have been strikes.
Benintendi, who has significantly improved his defense over the last year, saved Kimbrel from what would have been a devastating blown save.
“I gave him a big hug,” Kimbrel said. “He might get a big Christmas present.”
The Red Sox have gotten to the doorstep of the Series by playing extraordinarily well in two of baseball’s toughest environments for road teams. They won twice at Yankee Stadium in the Division Series and now twice at Houston, scoring 36 runs in those games.
“Their offense is relentless,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s been relentless since March, since we first saw them in spring training.
“Getting through them, getting through the at-bats, you watch them hang in there. They’re a full offense to deal with on a nightly basis. That’s what’s going on.”
That was the case Wednesday. The Astros took a lead in the fourth inning and again in the fifth. But the Sox punched back harder.
Jackie Bradley Jr.’s two-run homer in the sixth inning gave the Sox a 6-5 lead. After Christian Vazquez doubled, Bradley drove a changeup from Josh James deep into the right-field seats, the same direction his grand slam traveled in Game 3 Tuesday.
That gave Bradley nine RBIs on three hits in the series. It’s the most RBIs for a Red Sox player in an LCS since Manny Ramirez had 10 in 2007.
“That was a big momentum shift,” Bradley said. “It was a big moment for us. I drew a lot of energy from my teammates.”
The Sox tacked on a run in the seventh and another in the eighth. But an 8-5 lead was not safe in Kimbrel’s hands.
Tony Kemp led off the eighth with a line drive to right field but was thrown out by Mookie Betts going for second base. Kemp grew up with Betts in Tennessee and should have known better than to test his arm.
Kimbrel hit Bregman with a pitch before George Springer doubled. Bregman scored when Jose Altuve grounded out.
As Price hurried to warm up, Kimbrel was able to strike out Marwin Gonzalez and end the inning.
Kimbrel walked Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa, and Kemp to load the bases in the ninth. Bregman, ever aggressive, swung at the first pitch, and what had been an eventful, thrill-packed game finally ended.
“That was an interesting game, to say the least,” Cora said.
For the Astros, it will be remembered for umpire Joe West overruling what they and a sellout crowd thought was a home run.
Springer singled with one out in the bottom of the first inning off Sox starter Rick Porcello. Altuve then connected on a fastball and sent it toward the stands in right.
Betts jumped at the wall and appeared to have the ball lined up. But a fan jostled Betts’s glove, and the ball bounced away.
West immediately called fan interference and signaled that Altuve was out. The call stood after a video review, and Betts was credited with the catch as the crowd booed loudly.
The fan, Troy Caldwell of Atlanta, insisted he did not interfere with Betts.
“I put my hand out, and the ball hit my hand,” he said. “I never touched his glove. I don’t understand why it wasn’t a home run.”
Said West: “When [Betts] jumped up to reach for the ball, the spectator reached out of the stands and hit him over the playing field and closed his glove.”
Hinch did not feel the call decided the outcome. “That’s not how the game plays,” he said.
How the Red Sox played is what did. A team that won 108 games in the regular season is thriving in the cauldron of the postseason.
“It’s not over. We know that,” Cora said. “We’re just going to show up tomorrow, get the information, play hard, and see what happens.”