BOSTON – In a series where the Red Sox need to find some semblance of hardball perfection to keep their dream season alive, the opening game of the American League Championship playoff was anything but ideal.
In fact, not a lot went right in a 7-2 loss to the Houston Astros.
Where do we start? With Chris Sale, the team’s top starting pitcher and clear-cut ace. Sale didn’t have his A-game from the opening gun. In fact he didn’t have his B-game either. What he did bring to the table was bushels of moxie and guile as he somehow, someway, survived four innings and allowed only two runs on one hit.
The lefty struggled with his control from the get-go, nibbled much too much and lacked the popping, 95-plus fastball that makes him an All-Star. When he left after throwing 86 pitches, it was hard not to wonder just what Sale will have left in his tank if he’s needed again in this series.
Asking the Red Sox bullpen to navigate five innings against the Astros lineup is looking for trouble. Three relievers kept the `Stros at bay but luck ran out in the ninth inning when Brandon Workman was roughed up for two home runs that sent the crowd rushing to the exits.
The Red Sox offense didn’t show up either. The Sox managed three hits all night as their attack was shut down by Houston starter Justin Verlander (six innings, two runs, two hits) and three impressive relievers. If Verlander didn’t walk three straight hitters and uncork a wild pitch in the fifth inning, the Sox were staring at a shutout.
Then we have Boston’s defense. The Astros scored two runs in the second inning when George Springer’s sharp ground ball went under the glove of third baseman Eduardo Nunez. At best Nunez could’ve made a nice stab and an inning-ending play. At worst he should’ve knocked the ball down to limit the damage.
After the Sox came back to tie the game at 2-2 thanks to Verlander’s wildness, Nunez struck again. This time he fumbled a grounder in the sixth inning and that opened the door for Carlos Correa’s RBI single off Joe Kelly.
To top it off, secret weapon/manager Alex Cora was ejected by home plate umpire James Hoye for arguing balls and strikes at the end of the fifth inning. The arguing was merited, if only because the costly called strike against Andrew Benintendi came with runners on second and third base and represented one of the Sox few scoring chances in the game.
Needless to say, if the Red Sox don’t pitch better, hit better or field better, they won’t stand a chance against the Astros. These are the World Champion Astros, after all. They have pitching, hitting and defense in spades.
That balance makes the Astros a better team than the Red Sox. They can be beaten but the Sox need to hit, pitch and defend with stark consistency throughout the series to have a chance at knocking off the champs.
The Astros led all of major league baseball in earned run average and allowed the fewest runs (534) of anyone. That’s a whopping 113 fewer than the Red Sox. While Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole makes for a formidable follow-up to Verlander, Houston’s bullpen is the one, clear-cut, difference between the two teams.
“We want to have a collection of relievers that can come in at any time and I can rest anybody at any time. I can pitch anybody at any time,” said manager A.J. Hinch. “It's the best bullpen I've ever been around.”
While it’s tough to top a Boston offense that produced better than anyone in the majors all season, the Astros lineup is pretty special. Jose Altuve is the reigning MVP in the American League. George Springer has become the Astros’ Mr. October with 10 home runs in 24 playoff games.
Then there’s the team’s sparkplug, Alex Bregman. Besides MVP-level talent, the 24-year old brings a different, outgoing personality that’s drawn comparisons to the Dustin Pedroia of a half dozen years ago. Hinch says he’s never met anyone who loves baseball more.
Ninth hitter Josh Reddick and cleanup man Yuli Gurriel both hit home runs in Game 1. That’s the type of depth and talent a big-time lineup brings to the table.
Hinch says he can see his team’s focus only tightening as the playoffs move on. These guys know what it takes to win. They can see another World Series on the horizon.
“I think knowing what's at stake and having experienced it, I think there's just a great boost of adrenaline that kicks in at this time,” Hinch said. “If you're not kind of at your peak interest level at playing the game then something's wrong with you. This is such a good opportunity for these guys to showcase against the best teams and on the biggest stage and in front of millions and millions of people. That will make everybody sit up straight, feel a little better and kick it in gear.”
The Red Sox will need to kick their game into gear right away in Sunday’s Game 2. They’ll need to pitch better, hit better and field better.
Who will they turn to to get things started?
How about David Price.