BOSTON — On the first night of true October playoff weather in the northeast, in the coziest and most intimidating building in baseball, in the first game of an American League Championship Series between two of the best teams of recent vintage, something was causing hearts to seize and nerves to snap. Two of the best pitchers in baseball, and a parade of lesser ones, lost all feel for the strike zone. Outs were thrown away. A low-key and good-natured manager flew into a rage. A catcher’s throw to second pegged an umpire.
Were it not for the brilliance of the Houston Astros’ bullpen, perhaps the lone unit on either side to give a respectable representation of itself, Game 1 of the ALCS at Fenway Park may have gone completely off the rails. As it was, the defending World Series champs held on early and exploded late for a 7-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in a game that failed to deliver on its promise but managed to entertain in its own strange and meandering way.
A four-run outburst by the Astros in the ninth, featuring home runs from Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel, sent many in the sellout crowd of 38,007 filing up the aisles and out into the night. It is an uneasy feeling gripping Red Sox Nation, its hopes now resting on star-crossed lefty David Price in Game 2 on Sunday night, when he will face hard-throwing Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole.
Had anyone been told that both teams would carry two-hitters into the ninth inning, they would have envisioned an epic, lengthy duel from the two aces facing off in Game 1, Red Sox lefty Chris Sale and Astros right-hander Justin Verlander, both leading candidates for this year’s Cy Young Award. But that was far from the case.
Sale had a rare command meltdown in the second inning and was gone after four shaky innings trailing 2-0, while Verlander saved his meltdown for the fifth, giving the lead back, uncharacteristically, on three straight walks and a wild pitch. By night’s end, the teams had combined to walk 14 batters, with 10 of those walks issued by the Red Sox.
“If I would have told you Sale would have control problems and Verlander would walk himself into a major jam, and the game was still going to be 3-2 with four or five hits between the teams — that’s a lot of odd things happen,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said.
Was it the weather, the nerves, or something else that had everyone on edge?
The umpiring certainly didn’t help. Pitchers for both teams took issue at times with the strike zone of home-plate umpire James Hoye, but at the end of that fifth inning, Red Sox Manager Alex Cora absolutely lost it. His arguing from the dugout over the called strike three on Andrew Benintendi got him ejected — for just the second time all year — but before he left the field, he went at Hoye furiously in the grass between home and first, getting his full money’s worth for the ejection before crew chief Joe West stepped between them.
“He called it a strike. Andrew didn’t agree. I didn’t agree,” Cora said. “It’s a big pitch right there. It’s ball four, bases loaded. . . . But you can’t argue balls and strikes. And I did. It’s kind of embarrassing that it happens in the playoffs.”
West would have his own embarrassing signature moment in the top of the eighth, when a throw from Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, attempting to nab a would-be base-stealer, drilled West in the right shoulder.
But the worst night of all may have been that of Eduardo Nunez, the Red Sox’s third baseman. He failed to make a tough play to his left on George Springer’s one-hop smash that went just under his glove, a bases-loaded single that drove home the Astros’ first two runs. And four innings later, he made an error on a potential double-play grounder from Yuli Gurriel that helped the Astros score the go-ahead run.
“We’re human,” Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts said. “We mess up sometimes.”
Nunez’s struggles stood in contrast to the steady brilliance of his counterpart, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who made a series of clutch defensive plays — none of them spectacular, but some of them appearing easier than they really were thanks to Bergman’s sheer ability.
Sale’s fastball averaged 94.7 mph this season, and 94.6 mph in his Game 1 start against the Yankees in the ALDS a week earlier. But on Saturday night, pitching in short sleeves despite temperatures that dropped into the 40s, Sale’s first offering clocked in at 91, his second at 89. His command was off as well, as he needed 34 pitches to muddle through the second inning, throwing just 16 of them for strikes.
“Any time he’s at 91-92,” said Reddick, “he’s easier to hit than 97-98.”
The impression was of a pitcher who wasn’t quite right physically. Sale suffered from a bout of shoulder inflammation in the second half of the season, limiting him to five starts combined in August and September. The drop in velocity and the sudden and uncharacteristic loss of command Sunday night were both red flags. His wipeout slider, typically a deadly weapon, was virtually useless for three innings. Only two of Sale’s first 69 pitches produced swings-and-misses.
Sale brushed off suggestions he is unsound, saying, “I was out there searching for it for a little bit. It happens. You’re battling yourself.”
That Sale was able to gut through four innings with such diminished weaponry, and allow only those two second-inning runs, was testament to the veteran’s guile and competitiveness.
It may have seemed like a small thing, but the way Sale pitched the fourth inning — his velocity back up, his command better, his slider having regained its bite — was a good omen for the Red Sox. Knowing his time was short, he dialed up the intensity, with excellent results. It is certainly possible, given Boston’s thin bullpen and the aggressive way Cora managed the ALDS, that Sale could make a relief appearance in Game 3 or 4 in Houston.
Meanwhile, against the highest-scoring offense in baseball, Verlander seemed to be in total command, right up until the moment he wasn’t. He had retired 10 straight Red Sox hitters before Steve Pearce singled leading off the fifth, and then Verlander lost all feel for his pitches. After striking out Brock Holt, he went walk, walk, walk to the bottom third of Boston’s order, the last of which plated the Red Sox’s first run, then uncorked a wild pitch that brought home a second run and tied the game.
“He was barely missing,” Hinch said. “These two offenses are so good. But pitching careful is hard. And it looked like [Verlander] got a little bit careful in that inning and started to spread the ball around.”
After he finally escaped the inning — on the called third strike to Benintendi that set Cora off — Verlander gathered himself, completed an uneventful sixth inning and handed what was then a one-run lead off to his deep and potent bullpen.
Ryan Pressly handled the seventh and Lance McCullers Jr. the eighth. After the Astros broke the game open in the top of the ninth, Hinch had the luxury of keeping his closer, Roberto Osuna, under wraps and giving the last three outs to Collin McHugh.
Four hours three minutes after it started, Game 1 ended with a weak grounder, a clean play, and the Astros forming a handshake line in the center of the diamond to celebrate a win that may not have earned any style points, but counts as much as any other.