The Astros won Game 1 of this ALCS, 5-4, because they are the Astros and this is Minute Maid Park, and that is what they do here in October. The Astros tied the score in the sixth on José Altuve’s two-run homer to left and then went ahead on Carlos Correa’s towering blast to left in the seventh. Sound familiar? They’ve been doing this for half a decade now — sometimes, one imagines, without the aid of a sign-stealing scheme.
“Those guys have been together for a long time,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said of Altuve and Correa. “They know each other. It’s kind of like Tom Brady and [Rob] Gronkowski... It’s a special relationship that will last forever.”
With his homer, Altuve, the Astros’ miracle of a second baseman, effectively returned to Houston the two runs he handed away in the third, when he let a double-play grounder go through him, leading to a pair of Boston runs. The blast, on a first-pitch hanging slider from Red Sox rookie right-hander Tanner Houck, was the 20th of Altuve’s career in the postseason, tying him with Derek Jeter for the third-most all-time, behind only Manny Ramirez (29) and Bernie Williams (22).
“Even though I don’t do any bat-flip or nothing,” said Altuve of his understated run around the bases, “I’m really happy about the homers I hit.”
Correa’s drive an inning later, on a change-up from right-hander Hansel Robles, landed in the same section as Altuve’s but a half-dozen rows farther back. There was nothing understated about his reaction. Immediately after striking it, Correa stood at home plate, tossed aside his bat and began pointing to an imaginary watch on his wrist. As he started his jog around the bases, he looked into the Astros’ dugout and screamed, “It’s my time!” He isn’t wrong.
“It’s a special feeling that I’m never going to forget,” Correa said. “When you retire, all these memories that you build in this beautiful game of baseball. One day I just want to be sitting in my house and spending time with my family, open a bottle of wine, and just talking about these beautiful moments that you live playing baseball.”
The homers, plus an insurance run they plated in the eighth on Altuve’s sacrifice fly, allowed the Astros to survive the latest October tour de force from Red Sox utility man Enrique “Kiké” Hernandez, who had four hits, including a pair of home runs — the second of which, off Astros closer Ryan Pressly in the ninth, pulled the Red Sox to within a run.
But in the bigger picture, Game 1 only served to raise a fascinating question: How in the world can the Astros win three more games, or the Red Sox four, behind their respective pitching staffs? There could be as many as six more games in this series across the next eight days — beginning with Game 2 on Saturday afternoon. Baker can signal to his bullpen all he wants, but Justin Verlander ain’t walking through those doors.
Friday night’s starters — Boston’s Chris Sale and Houston’s Framber Valdez, both lefties — lasted 2⅔ innings apiece, allowing a combined 16 base runners and requiring one harrowing escape after another. Each team churned through seven relievers, as the game stretched on an interminable 4 hours 7 minutes. Such rates of deployment, it goes without saying, are unsustainable.
“It became a battle of the bullpens,” Baker said. “We almost went through everybody, on both sides, in Game 1. They used up a bunch of guys, too."
The first three innings Friday night crawled by in 97 minutes, by which point there had been 16 batters reach base and 18 outs secured. It took until the bottom of the fourth inning — thank you, Adam Ottavino — for any pitcher to set down the side in order.
While the Astros’ bullpen performed admirably — six straight relievers delivered scoreless outings, including 2 1/3 shutout innings from rookie Cristian Javier, before Pressly surrendered Hernandez’s second homer in the ninth — those relievers can’t keep covering 19 outs each game.
Nor can Boston’s.
“Of course, we want our starters to go deeper in the game,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora said, “but we feel like today we were very close to pulling this off, pitching-wise.”
Throughout their run of deep Octobers that began in 2017, the Astros always had a Verlander, a Dallas Keuchel or a Gerrit Cole — or sometimes all three — to anchor their starting rotation, eat innings and put a string of zeros up on the scoreboard. This is not one of those situations.
The Astros’ pitching staff took a major hit this week with the news veteran right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. suffered a muscle strain in his right forearm during his start in the AL Division Series, forcing the team to drop him from its roster. In absentia, he joins Verlander, who still hasn’t made it back from elbow surgery in September 2020, as well as veteran right-hander Zack Greinke, who has been slowed by a neck injury and has been relegated to the Astros’ bullpen — though he could be pressed into starting duty at some point by default. For Game 2, however, Houston will turn to rookie right-hander Luis Garcia.
The state of Boston’s pitching is only marginally better. This isn’t 2018, when Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and David Price were at the peak of their powers. The Red Sox thought they might have solved Sale’s recent struggles, based on some tweaks made in the bullpen over the past few days, but he still struggled with consistency Friday night, looking more or less like what he is: a former Cy Young winner trying to make it all the way back from Tommy John surgery 19 months ago. They have their surest thing, Eovaldi, ready to start in Game 2.
The Astros, owing to the sign-stealing scandal that tainted their 2017 World Series title, may be baseball’s uber-villains in 29 other stadiums, fair game for taunting, jeering and trash-can-banging, but at Minute Maid Park are they are unquestionably the heroes. The sellout crowd of 40,534 saved its loudest cheers for the same players — Altuve, Correa and Alex Bregman, the most visible figures on the team — who take the brunt of the abuse on the road.
Hernandez nearly spoiled the night for the home crowd, continuing his out-of-his-mind October with his four-hit night at the plate and leaping, running and diving catches in the outfield. His first homer, leading off the top of the third, traveled 448 feet, nearly reaching the train tracks that run some 50 feet above the playing field.
Last offseason saw a former Cy Young Award winner (Trevor Bauer) and a former World Series MVP (George Springer) sign with new teams, the premier shortstop (Francisco Lindor) and third baseman (Nolan Arenado) of their generation traded away and six different free agents signing deals worth in excess of $50 million.
But it is clear now, roughly two weeks into the 2021 postseason, that the most consequential acquisition in baseball in the winter of 2020-21 was the Red Sox’s signing Feb. 2 of Hernandez to a two-year, $14 million contract.
Hernandez, 30, is a perfectly ordinary player; his on-base-plus-slugging percentage-plus of 100 over an eight-year career makes him the very definition of league-average as a hitter. But he has two traits that give him extraordinary value: Over the course of his career, he has played every position on the field except catcher, including at least 50 games at all three outfield spots plus second base and shortstop.
And each October, he turns into Babe Ruth.
After laying waste to the Tampa Bay Rays — against whom he hit .450 with two homers, three doubles and six RBI and launched the walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 4 that clinched the division series for Boston — he has already started in on the Astros.
“Enrique,” Cora said, “is en fuego.”
At some point, the Astros have to retire Hernandez. At some point, the Red Sox have to keep Altuve, Correa and friends in the park. At some point, one team or the other is going to need a starter to pitch into the fifth, the sixth or, heaven forbid, the seventh.
Is any of that possible? Of course it is. But it might make for more interesting theater if the answer was no.