BOSTON — At times, Game 1 of the American League Championship Series devolved into a comedy of errors and miscues, looking more like a rec league softball game between two teams that were sipping from can of Natty Light between innings. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a current exhibition titled “French Pastels Treasures from the Vault.” This game should immediately be tossed into some dark warehouse alongside all those fake Ark of the Covenants, to be forgotten and never displayed again to the public.
There were 14 walks, three hit batters, two wild pitches, two errors, a blooper to right field that featured a runner reaching second base and then heading back to first base, then turning back to second base, called safe, and then after a two-minute replay review to be ruled out. One pitch with a 99.8 percent strike probability was called a ball. A borderline strike-three call resulted in Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora getting ejected from the game.
Boston’s Chris Sale threw one pitch behind a batter. Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander was cruising along and then suddenly walked three batters in a row in the fifth inning. Alex Bregman was hit by a 100 mph fastball and had a little stare-down with Joe Kelly in a situation that was quickly defused by catcher Christian Vazquez. One throw on a stolen-base attempt at second base sailed wide and hit umpire Joe West — and the fans cheered. The Red Sox struck out twice in the eighth on pitches that got away from the catcher and required throws to first base. The go-ahead run, of course, was unearned, and then the Astros even removed all potential for late-game drama when they scored four runs in the top of the ninth.
So, no, this was not a picture-perfect opener to the ALCS at Fenway Park. The Astros pulled out a 7-2 victory over the Red Sox, and while it was hardly the prettiest of wins, nobody in the Astros clubhouse was complaining about the lack of style points.
“The only thing that matters is trying to find a way to win a game,” Bregman said.
“This team finds a way,” Verlander said. “In big moments, they show up. From top to bottom, nobody cares who the hero is as long as we have a hero.”
It was the kind of game where Astros manager A.J. Hinch answered a question about West with, “I was not expecting him to get hit.”
Yep. Definitely not a classic. In the end, it came down to Verlander getting through the lethal part of the Boston lineup at the game’s most crucial stage. He had cruised through the first four innings giving up only one hit in an efficient 48 pitches. Suddenly, with one out and Steve Pearce on first after a base hit, he lost the strike zone and walked three batters in a row, included pinch hitter Mitch Moreland with the bases loaded to make it a 2-1 game.
“I had been working out of the wind-up for a few innings in a row there,” Verlander said. “All of a sudden I’m out of the stretch and the timing was a tick off. Honestly, it was a very consistent miss. I was missing glove side by probably three to five inches almost every fastball I threw.”
The walk to Moreland brought up likely AL MVP Mookie Betts. He swung at the first pitch, a 92 mph fastball, middle in, but grounded to third base and Bregman got the force at home. The inning wasn’t over and a two-strike curveball to Andrew Benintendi bounced in the dirt and off Martin Maldonado‘s chest protector, allowing the tying run to score.
The 3-2 pitch to Benintendi was a fastball on the outside corner. Plate umpire James Hoye rang him up. Benintendi slammed down his elbow pad, his bat and his helmet. The pitch could have gone either way. Cora continued to argue the call and was ejected.
“Andrew didn’t agree. I didn’t agree. It’s a big pitch right there. It’s ball four, bases loaded. They got [Ryan] Pressly in the bullpen. Most likely Verlander comes out of the game. But you can’t argue balls and strikes. And I did. It’s kind of embarrassing that it happens in the playoffs. That wasn’t cool, watching the game in the clubhouse.”
The Red Sox took the lead in the top of the sixth on Carlos Correa‘s two-out single off Kelly — a run set up by Bregman’s hit by pitch and an Eduardo Nunez error. Somewhat surprisingly, Verlander came back out in the sixth and retired J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Pearce on nine pitches. It was a big statement. The Astros have the better and deeper bullpen, yet it was Verlander who scratched out the extra inning of work while Sale made it through only four frames.
Hinch said Verlander might have come out if he had not fanned Benintendi, saying, “His at-bat is obviously huge because the difference between that and being a walk and a punchout is significant on both sides. One, he may come out of the game. I’m not sure what I would have done with Martinez coming up. And, number two, it just created a little bit of an issue on their side. Benintendi is mad. Cora gets ejected. That at-bat was a huge swing at-bat.”
The anticipated duel between Verlander and Sale never developed, as Sale was all over the place and lasted 86 shaky pitches. While he gave up only one hit, he walked four and induced just six swings-and-misses — his lowest percentage of misses of any appearance this season, just 18.4 percent of all swings, well below his season mark of 34 percent. He fell apart in the second after two easy walks, walking the No. 7 hitter, hitting Maldonado and then walking Josh Reddick.
George Springer, fresh off three home runs against the Indians in the division series, fell behind 0-2, worked the count full as he fouled off two pitches, then turned on a 94 mph fastball and hit a hard grounder under the glove of third baseman Nunez for a two-run single.
“It’s just kind of one of those things where you grind out an at-bat and hope for something good to happen,” Springer said.
It also pointed to a key weakness for the Red Sox. It was a play other third basemen might make — like Bregman, who was a vacuum cleaner at third and made a couple of nice plays. Nunez is in the lineup in part because of his defensive consistency over Rafael Devers — but he’s not a good defensive third baseman, his series-ending play against the Yankees notwithstanding. He had minus-4 defensive runs saved at third base in limited action there this season, and it’s not as if his bat carries his glove. It will be interesting to see whom Cora starts at third in Game 2. Devers might get a shot at Houston’s Gerrit Cole, but Cora also likes to play Nunez at third when David Price pitches.
There was a general feeling that it was more imperative for the Red Sox to win this game, given the importance they put on Sale’s shoulders and the obvious uncertainty of Price in Game 2. The man who is 0-9 in 10 career postseason starts must now take the mound with his team trailing in the series while trying to avoid an 0-2 deficit heading to Houston. If the Red Sox don’t win the Sale games, it would be difficult to envision a path to get them past the Astros.
“We came in here to win one game,” Reddick said. “With Gerrit going tomorrow, we have all the confidence in the world. Two-oh at home is going to be a huge advantage for us and put their backs against the wall. We have to keep the foot on the pedal though.”
OK, that’s a lot of baseball clichés there. Then again, this was a game that deserved to be summed up that way. Because in baseball, you just take it one game at a time. The Red Sox have to forget this ugly loss, their 10 walks and 199 pitches and bad defense and questionable umpire calls, and hope Price delivers a win that is more museum-worthy.