HOUSTON — David Price had started 11 postseason games for four teams over nine seasons without once knowing what it felt like to be the winning pitcher.
It was an ugly blot on what has otherwise been a glittering career, the loose thread critics could endlessly tug on.
That all ended on Thursday night, Price throwing six dominant innings as the Red Sox beat the Houston Astros, 4-1, for the American League pennant.
Game 1 of the World Series will be Tuesday night at Fenway Park with Chris Sale set to pitch for the Sox. The Dodgers lead the Brewers, 3-2, in the NLCS with Game 6 on Friday in Milwaukee.
On Wednesday night, when Price learned he would get the start, the lefthander seemed to know this was his moment.
“Start tomorrow and do something special,” he said.
He did. Price allowed three hits and struck out nine without a walk, leaving the game with a four-run lead built by home runs from J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers.
Three relievers finished the Astros off from there; Craig Kimbrel getting the final three outs for the save and leaving Minute Maid Park quiet save the cheering from a small group of Red Sox fans.
Price is now 1-9 as a postseason starter. He’ll take it.
“I wanted it to happen and we wanted to go ahead and finish this off,” Price said. “But now we have another series to win.”
For rookie manager Alex Cora, who turned 43 on Thursday, it was another perfectly planned and executed game. He turned to Game 3 starter Nathan Eovaldi to get four outs, then showed faith in Kimbrel, who had pitched poorly in four previous appearances in the postseason.
The closer worked around a walk and ended the game by retiring Tony Kemp on a deep fly ball tracked down by Andrew Benintendi. That set off a celebration.
“It’s special in every aspect. Not only as a manager, but as an individual,” Cora said. “Just to manage this team, everybody knows the history of the city and history has positive sides and negative sides.
“And for me, as a minority, to be a manager in Boston, it hasn’t been a challenge. People have been great with us.”
Jackie Bradley Jr., who drove in nine runs in the series, was named Most Valuable Player.
“Speechless. It’s amazing,” Bradley said. “This is what we set out to do when we came to spring training. You just have that feel. We had a lot of talent in the room.”
For the defending champion Astros, it was a swift and stunning exit. They won Game 1 before the Red Sox won the next four, their relentless offense scoring 27 runs.
For the first time in his 11-year career, Price started on three days’ rest. He also warmed up twice in the final two innings of Game 4 on Wednesday.
Price suggested that would actually help him. “I think it will just make me a little more sharp for tomorrow,” he said.
It proved true. He threw 65 of 93 pitches for strikes and went to a three-ball count only once to 21 batters.
Working at his customary slow pace, Price kept the ball low in the strike zone and threw his changeup 39 times. The off-speed pitches complemented a fastball that hit 96 m.p.h.
The changeup accounted for five of his strikeouts. Price also got punch-outs with his four-seam fastball (2), cutter, and two-seam fastball.
Price could not remember the last time he had the fastball and changeup working with such symmetry.
“I felt good in the bullpen and I fed off of that,” he said. “To match up against that team and get the win, it’s unbelievable.”
In any situation, it was an impressively pitched game. On short rest, on the road against Justin Verlander, and with a berth in the World Series on the line, it was one of the best starts of his career and in Red Sox postseason history.
“David’s one of the best in the game and he proved it,” Matt Barnes said.
The only Astros player to get into scoring position against Price was Yuli Gurriel, who doubled with two outs in the fourth. Price then struck out Marwin Gonzalez.
Price retired the final seven batters he faced from there. Mookie Betts aided that cause in the sixth inning when he made a leaping catch at the wall in right field to steal an extra-base hit away from Alex Bregman.
Down, 4-0, the Astros finally broke through in the seventh inning when Gonzalez homered with two outs off Barnes. When Kemp walked, Cora went to Eovaldi.
Pinch hitter Josh Reddick flied to deep right field to end the inning.
Verlander easily handled the Sox in Game 1, allowing two runs over six innings. He also came into the game having pitched 24 consecutive scoreless innings in potential playoff elimination games.
That continued for two more innings. Then Martinez, released by the Astros in 2014, homered to left field off a curveball in the third inning.
The lead grew to 4-0 in the sixth inning.
Mitch Moreland, back in the lineup for the first time since Game 2 of the Division Series when he strained a hamstring, led off with a double. After Ian Kinsler singled, Devers sent a first-pitch fastball soaring toward left field.
Kemp lined up as though expecting to make the catch. But Devers’s opposite-field power carried the ball into the stands for what is already the third postseason homer for the 21-year-old.
Devers began the postseason on the bench, losing his spot in the lineup to Eduardo Nunez. But with Nunez fighting nagging injuries, Devers came on and has driven in seven runs in four games.
“It’s a great group — very talented, very humble, very hungry,” Cora said. “Now we’ve got four more to go.”