BOSTON — The Houston Astros, the only defending World Series champions that we have, are extraordinarily good at winning baseball games. They are good at winning close games. They are good at winning blowout games. They are good at winning regular season games and they are good at winning postseason games. They are good at winning games in the spring, in the summer and especially in the fall. They are even good at winning extraordinarily awful, scabrous, gangrenous, leprous, odiferous, calamitous games like the first game of this year’s American League Championship Series, which they and the Boston Red Sox inflicted on the sport Saturday night. In a little over four hours, the two teams took baseball back about eight decades. Naturally, because they are good at winning baseball games of all sorts, the Astros ended up kings of this landfill, putting up four runs in the top half of the ninth, winning 7-2, and putting Boston in the kind of hole that you don’t want to be in against Houston. The home field advantage now shifts to No Longer Enron Stadium down in Hydrocarbon County. And, to keep from getting swept, the Red Sox send David Price to the mound in the second game; against all possible postseason odds, the two teams managed to concoct a thoroughgoing atrocity without any help from David Price.
If there was one signifying play that told you everything you needed to know about Game 1, it came in the eighth inning, when at least the game was still close at 3-2. Boston reliever Ryan Brasier hit Astro DH Tyler White to lead off the inning. One batter later, White took off for second base. Boston catcher Christian Vasquez came up throwing and managed to plunk second-base umpire Joe West a few degrees east of the collarbone. The ball rebounded back into the infield. How West managed to stay in the way of a throw he had to see coming from 90 feet away is anybody’s guess, but my money’s on pure cussedness. It was that kind of night.
It was also this kind of night. The two teams combined for 21 walks. In addition to one umpire, the Red Sox hit three different Astros batters. Boston third baseman Eduardo Nunez had a terrible night; in the second, he let a sharp roundball by George Springer get under him and into left field, which scored the first two Houston runs. In the sixth, Nunez botched an easy double-play ball that cost Boston a run. Meanwhile, Red Sox manager Alex Cora got run in the sixth inning for arguing a pitch to Andrew Benintendi that was clearly a strike. The two ace starting pitchers had peculiar performances. Boston’s Chris Sale couldn’t find the 617 area code, let alone the strike zone, and Houston’s Justin Verlander was sailing right along until he went to the zoo as well in the fifth, giving back that 2-0 Astros’ lead. Amazingly, by the time Vasquez was homing in on Joe West, the game was still 3-2 and the teams had combined for five hits. It was still a recognizable mutation of a playoff game. Which is about where, for the Red Sox anyway, the roof caved in.
After a solid several innings from Boston’s dubious bullpen, especially Joe Kelly, who’d come in to pitch in the fifth inning, replacing Sale, who’d finished stronger than he’d started, the Red Sox staff brought in Brandon Workman to work the Houston ninth. Josh Reddick hit Workman’s second pitch into the seats in deep right centerfield. After a strikeout, Workman walked both Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman to face Yuli Gurriel. At which point, Workman got himself Fenway’ed. Gurriel hit a floppy, dying line drive to right field. In its last, gasping moments, the ball bent towards the stands and fell, senseless, into the seats just past Johnny Pesky’s pole—a pole named after a guy who was a Pole’s Pole himself—for three runs and a 7-2 final, and also to teach us a new-old bit of baseball lingo—“tack-on runs.”
“It’s a 27-out, use-all-you-can-game,” said Houston managed A.J. Hinch. “Being a tough team to put away is a great characteristic, and we showed again why tack-on runs are important. It doesn’t make it more comfortable, necessarily.
“That was a really close game for the way that game played out. I mean, both sides. If I would have told you before the game that Sale would have control problems, and Verlander would walk himself into a major jam, and the game would still be 3-2 with four or five hits between the teams, that’s a lot of odd things happening. Mistakes happen all the time, but when mistakes happen in the playoffs and the momentum starts to shift the other way, that’s what you want to do—take advantage of it. When you get a free pass, take advantage of it, try to find a way to score and put more pressure on the opponent.”
That’s what’s been built in Houston—a baseball team that is incredibly solid in all its parts, and one that’s capable under pressure to adapt to any circumstance, even the most surreal ones. The Astros had not been entirely healthy for most of the season, but they managed to win their division, and now, they have all their pieces back together again, and they are equal to any occasion. The pivotal moment in Saturday night’s game, if anything as unwieldy as this contest could be said to be able to pivot at all without falling on its face, came in the fifth inning. For reasons beyond easy explanation, Verlander’s control suddenly abandoned him. He walked the bases full. Then he walked in a run. With two outs, and Andrew Benintendi at the plate, Verlander threw a wild pitch and Jackie Bradley, Jr. came in from third base to tie the game. Verlander now had men on second and third and his command of his pitches was in tatters.
“I had been working out of… the windup for a few innings,” Verlander said. “And, 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 with almost every fastball I threw.
“And I wish I could tell you what it was. Something threw off my timing. But for us to get out of that inning tied, to not relinquish the lead, that was, for me, the ballgame.”
After Bradley scored, Verlander still had to face Benintendi. He dropped a terrific pitch on the outside corner, clearly within the strike zone, and Benintendi went bananas. He slammed down, in order, his bat, his batting helmet and pieces of his body armor, all the while yapping at home plate umpire James Hoye. Benintendi, on his way to a three-strikeout evening, had been beefing with Hoye all night. Seeing that he was about to lose his left-fielder, Cora came out of the dugout and chewed on Hoye, who dismissed him for the rest of the game.
“Sometimes, you got to do what you got to do, and you’ve got to defend your players,” Cora said. “At least, Andrew stayed in the game and he had a few more at-bats and he played left-field while I was watching in my office.
“I disagree that it was a strike. But I don’t know. I gotta do what I gotta do with my players. We didn’t agree that the pitch was a strike. He did. You can’t argue balls and strikes, and he threw me out. If you feel I overreacted, so be it. But, from my end, I don’t think I did.”
More important, the pitch got Verlander out of the last real Boston rally of the night. Carlos got the lead back for good in the next inning, singling in a run, and the Houston bullpen breezed through the rest of the game, holding the Red Sox to one hit and no runs, until Reddick and Gurriel broke up the game entirely.
“It felt really good,” said Correa of his game winning single. “My back is in the best shape it’s been in since I came back from the DL. That hit was huge. It stopped their momentum, but, most importantly, it gives me a lot of confidence.
“When you look at our team, I don’t see any weaknesses. It’s just all strengths. When you look across the board, all 25 guys on the roster are good baseball players all around. We trust each other and we have a lot of confidence in each other.”
There is still an undeniable sense that this could be a great series. Both of these teams won over 100 games. On Saturday, the best road team in baseball beat the team with the best record at home. Both rosters are loaded to the gunwales with young talent. (The biggest advantage the Astros have obviously is their bullpen, but that’s been the case with almost every team the Red Sox have played this season.) The Boston manager was a vital part of Houston’s World Series championship last season. The potential is still there for a series that can go in the sport’s trophy case, but Game One goes in the compost heap.