Everything felt out of joint for the Red Sox on Sunday prior to their game against the Astros. Michael Chavis, for the first time that he could ever recall, was batting leadoff. Unexpected rain delayed the start of the game by nearly an hour. Chris Sale, though once again armed with a dominant pitch mix, lacked his characteristic command and got knocked out in the sixth inning.
And perhaps most puzzlingly, Xander Bogaerts — who, along with the rest of his team, almost never takes batting practice prior to Sunday day games — hit before his team’s contest against the Astros, mindful they won’t take batting practice before Monday’s day game in Toronto. The session proved awful.
“He was rolling over. He was jumpy. I’ve never seen him that way, so down on his swing. I was like, ‘Oh, God,’ ” said manager Alex Cora. “He said, ‘Well, I showed up today, so hopefully the baseball gods will help me out through the game.’ I guess they did.”
Indeed. The poor pregame session became a distant memory when Bogaerts slammed a double off the fence in center, just beneath the flag pole, in the eighth inning against Astros reliever Framber Valdez. The RBI double produced the decisive run in a 4-3 comeback victory over Houston, with Bogaerts joining a long and varied list of contributors, some of them in atypical roles.
Start at the top. Cora spent a significant amount of Sunday morning wrestling with his batting order against Astros lefty Wade Miley, who gives fellow portsiders fits. As the manager committed to stacking the top of the order with six straight righthanded hitters, Cora considered J.D. Martinez as one leadoff option before settling on another player who keeps being asked to do things he’s never done before.
Cora placed Chavis in the leadoff spot, noting the jolt provided in that spot by Houston’s George Springer. Perhaps, he thought, the Sox could get the same from the rookie who keeps offering glimpses of prodigious raw power.
“Just watching the other side, why not [Chavis]?” Cora mused. “Swing hard and hit it out of the ballpark. See what happens.”
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth and the Red Sox trailing, 3-1, the see-what-happens debut of the 23-year-old continued. A 5-year-old, randomly selected from the crowd to lend an assist on the P.A. system during the inning, screamed the introduction of the second baseman. Chavis initially looked startled, then amused and appreciative, turning and giving a point of acknowledgement to the young fan.
He promptly stepped into the box and blasted a first-pitch cutter 420 feet for his eighth homer of the year, which slashed the deficit to 3-2. Mookie Betts followed by crushing a double to right-center off of Miley, and Bogaerts drove him home by plopping a pop-up between three Astros in shallow right to tie the game.
Sale loves to deliver statement shutdown innings following his team’s offensive outbursts. In the top of the sixth, he offered an incomplete sentence, loading the bases on a leadoff double and a pair of one-out walks — the fourth and fifth free passes he issued on a puzzling day.
The lefthander featured tremendous stuff en route to his fourth straight double-digit strikeout game, at one point getting Jake Marisnick on a slider that hit the Astros outfielder in the back knee. That was one of 20 swings-and-misses by Houston, which struck out 10 times against Sale. The Sox ace has struck out nearly two batters per inning (51 strikeouts, 26⅓ innings) his last four starts.
Yet Sale’s command was far from pinpoint. The five walks — setting a new Red Sox high and matching a career-high, a marked departure from the one free pass he’d issued in 21 innings his prior three starts — didn’t include one awful fastball down the middle to Carlos Correa. The Astros shortstop destroyed the offering for a two-run, 438-foot homer to center in the third inning.
“Kind of a weird day,” said Sale, who allowed three runs on four hits in 5⅓ innings. “I just kind of felt like my body was all over the place.”
Mindful that the game hung in the balance, Cora summoned Marcus Walden. As he so often has this year, Walden (6-0, 1.37 ERA) proved brilliant, getting an inning-ending double play from Marisnick and following that with a scoreless seventh that likewise ended with a double play.
“That was clutch,” said Sale. “You look at his stuff, it’s up there with anybody. It’s disgusting.”
Walden once again claimed a victory when Bogaerts followed a Chavis single and a Mookie Betts forceout by ripping a fastball at the bottom of the zone. The shortstop is building upon his outstanding 2018 campaign with another, hitting .275/.374/.479 with a team-leading 20 extra-base hits.
“He’s an outstanding player. He’s an all-around player, a guy that obviously we made a commitment [to],” Cora said, alluding to the six-year, $120 million extension Bogaerts signed at the start of the season. “We’re very happy that Xander is going to be here for a long time.”
Two of Bogaerts’s longtime minor league teammates, Matt Barnes (a perfect eighth that started with an 11-pitch strikeout of Correa) and Brandon Workman (a scoreless ninth) made it stand up. It was Workman’s first career save.
“It took me a little longer than I’d have liked,” said Workman, “[but] it was nice to get.”
The same, of course, could be said of a win against the Astros. While the Red Sox returned to respectability by rolling a number of second-division teams, the more recent series at home — a two-game split with the Rockies followed by a three-game series loss against Houston — felt like more accurate measuring sticks. And in both cases, against good teams, the Red Sox felt like they were on a level field.
“We have a great team. I know we started off slow, but the last three to four weeks we’ve been right there with some of the best teams in baseball,” Barnes said. “We’re very confident in what we can do, what we’ve been able to do in turning it around and moving forward.”