October 15, 2021

ALCS 1: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

Red Sox - 003 000 001 - 4 10  0
Astros - 100 002 11x - 5 11 1

Kiké Hernández went 4-for-5, with two home runs and a double, and he made a handful of excellent catches in center field. It turns out what the Red Sox really needed him to do was pitch the eighth inning. And/or slap some sense into manager Alex Cora's head.
The Astros had taken a 4-3 lead in the seventh on Carlos Correa's solo homer. The Red Sox were retired in the top of the eighth, as Cora made the questionable decision to use Danny Santana as a pinch-hitter. The strategy, such as it was, failed – and the reasons for his presence on the roster remain a mystery. Now it was beyond essential that Houston not score any additional runs. All measures must be taken to keep them at four runs so the Red Sox would have a fighting chance in the ninth against Astros closer Ryan Pressly.

So who comes out of the Boston bullpen for the eighth? Garrett Whitlock (1.1 shutout innings in ALDS 3 and two perfect innings (8th-9th) in ALDS 4? Nick Pivetta (four shutout innings (10th-13th!) and seven strikeouts in ALDS 3)?

Hirokazu Sawamura. . . . Didn't see that one coming, did you? . . . That would be the guy the Red Sox thought so highly of, they left him off the ALDS roster. The guy who averaged 5.4 BB/9, the guy who pitched 129 fewer innings than Nathan Eovaldi but walked only three fewer batters.

I have no clue what Cora was thinking. The ALCS is not the time – not even in Game 1 – and certainly not if you are down by one run with only two innings to go in Game 1 – to roll the dice and see what a pitcher's got.

Sawamura was wild all season – and he was wild on Friday night. He walked Yuri Gurriel on a 3-2 count (Gurriel went full sasahe for strike two). Chas McCormick (3-for-4) lined a single to left that Santana pulled up on and watched drop in front of him. No action from Cora. Martín Maldonado squared to bunt and was hit in the chest by Sawamura's 1-0 offering. Bases loaded, no outs. No action from Cora. Jose Altuve, who walked and scored in the first and hit a two-run dong in the sixth, was coming up. No action from Cora. What could go wrong?

Altuve did minimal damage, thankfully. He flew out to center, but Gurriel tagged and scored an important insurance run. 5-3. Oh, look, NOW Cora is coming out to make a pitching change. But the horse was out of the barn, had banged a couple of fillies, and was halfway across the next county. Was Martín Pérez the white flag? It sure felt like garbage time. Pérez's first three pitches to Michael Brantley were nowhere close to the strike zone. Somehow, after a called strike, Brantley rapped into a double play. Garbage Time got the Trashcans.

How key was that fifth run? Well, Hernández belted Pressly's third pitch out to left for his second home run of the night. Kyle Schwarber grounded hard to the right side, but Altuve was in short right and threw him out. Xander Bogaerts hacked at the first pitch and grounded to shortstop. Rafael Devers was patience enough to get the count to 2-2, but he also grounded to Altuve. This time, he was behind the bag at second and made the play to end the game, 4:07 after the first pitch.

Red Sox Leadoff Batters With 2 Home Runs (Postseason Games)

Pasty Dougherty, 1903 WS 2 vs Pirates
Harry Hooper, 1915 WS 5 at Phillies
Johnny Damon, 2004 ALCS 7 at Yankees
Kiké Hernández, 2021 ALCS 1 at Astros

Most Hits In A 4-Game Span In A Single Postseason

13 – Kiké Hernández, 2021 Red Sox
11 – Billy Hatcher, 1990 Reds
11 – Marquis Grissom, 1995 Atlanta
11 – Shemp, 2004 Yankees
11 – Randy Arozarena, 2020 Rays

Most Extra-Base Hits In A 4-Game Span In A Single Postseason

8 – Kiké Hernández, 2021 Red Sox
8 – Shemp, 2004 Yankees

(Caveat: Postseasons are longer than ever now.)

The Red Sox had been 15-0 under Alex Cora in postseason games n which they held a multi-run lead.

Both teams had scoring chances galore in the first three innings. Both starters were shaky and each was pulled after 2.2 innings.

The Red Sox managed to get two singles and two walks off Framber Valdez (2.2-6-3-3-2, 64) in the first and not score. This major squander came about thusly: Hernández singled and Schwarber GIDP. Bogaerts walked, Devers singled, and J.D. Martinez walked. Hunter Renfroe flied to center. 3 LOB.

Houston scored off Chris Sale (2.2-5-1-1-2, 61) in the first. Sale was not sharp. He went to a three-ball count on three of the first four hitters (and two balls on the other). Altuve walked. Brantley lined to center. Alex Bregman singled to left. A wild pitch moved to the runners to second and third. Yuri Alvarez flied to left, scoring Altuve. Correa grounded to second.

Valdez allowed a leadoff single to Alex Verdugo in the second, but Christian Arroyo GIDP and Christian Vázquez struck out. That was the only time Valdez retired consecutive batters (he faced 16).

In the bottom of the second, it was the Astros' turn to leave the bases loaded. With one out, the 7-8-9 hitters reached base against Sale on three consecutive pitches. Gurriel and McCormick both hit hard singles to left and Maldonado was hit by a pitch. Sale rallied after a mound visit. His pitches seemed to be sharper, to have more purposeful locations. After missing inside to Altuve, Sale throws a fastball and two sliders, each one lower than the one before, and Altuve swings at all of them, finally making a half-hearted whiff at a pitch in the dirt for strike three. Brantley lifts a fly to short center. Hernández races in, dives, and makes a remarkable back-handed catch for the third out. At first, I feared it was trapped or the ball would hit right in front of his glove before bouncing off god knows where.

He looks like a happy dog with his head out the window of a speeding car!

Less than five minutes later, Hernández crushed Valdez's 2-1 pitch 448 feet to deep left-center, upping his postseason batting average to .480. (I clocked it on MLBTV as 4:31.) Houston manager Dusty Baker was being interviewed at the time and was saying that Valdez was struggling a little bit. As soon as bat hitting ball made that unmistakable sound, Baker interrupted himself: "Oh, lord . . .". It was Hernández's longest home run in more than five years (April 15, 2016).

After Schwarber grounded out to short, Bogaerts walked and Devers singled to center. Martinez grounded a perfect double play (and inning-ending) ball to second. But the ball went under Altuve's glove and into short center for an error. It also loaded the bases. Renfroe slammed a liner past Bregman at third, who dove to his right, and down the left field line. Two runs crossed. Boston still had men at second and third, but Verdugo fanned and, after a pitching change, so did Arroyo.

Sale's focus, if it was there in the second, did not last. The Astros knocked a couple of one-out singles off Sale in the third. After the Red Sox lefty struck out Tucker, Adam Ottavino came in and retired Gurriel. Houston had left six men on base in three innings (2 at first, 3 at second, 1 at third).

In his last three starts, Sale has recorded seven, three, and eight outs. Granted, the manager's hook is quicker in the postseason, but the combined stats are not pretty: 6 innings, 13 hits, 8 runs, five walks, 11 strikeouts. I'm no pitching coach, but I believe part of Sale's problem rests in that ugly beard he's intent on wearing. Big bushy beards do not look good on slender men. (Actually, they don't look good on anyone.)

Also, the word before the game was that Sale had found some flaw in his delivery. That did not seen to pan out as he continued to avoid throwing his changeup. In ALDS 2, Sale threw only one changeup in 30 pitches. Of his 61 pitches tonight, he threw two.

Hernández's fly ball down the left field line dropped for a double with one out; Alavrez went after it like he was running through quicksand. He needed only a triple for the cycle. (There has been only one cycle in all postseason play: Brock Holt, in Boston's 16-1 rout of the MFY in 2018 ALDS 3.) Cristian Javier struck out both Schwarber and Bogaerts to end the threat. The Red Sox had left six men on base in four innings (1 at first, 3 at second, 2 at third).

Things settled down at this point. Ottavino pitched a clean fourth, the first 1-2-3 inning of the game. Javier also set the Red Sox down in order in the fifth. That half-inning was notable for plate umpire David Rackley calling "strike" on three consecutive pitches outside the strike zone to Martinez. It was as incompetent a display as Gabe Morales's NLDS-ending blown call on Thursday night, though these three mistakes did not (presumably) change the course of the game (or series).

Some good news: Rackley did not call the first pitch a strike.

Brantley singled to lead off the home sixth against Josh Taylor, but Taylor got the next two batters before handing the ball to Ryan Brasier. Correa singled on a ball to Devers's left that got under his glove. Tucker drove a ball to deep right-center. Hernández sprinted after it and as he neared the warning track, he suddenly realized he had over-run the ball slightly. He reached back and was able to grab it. Yoinks!

Verdugo walked against Phil Maton to start the sixth. Arroyo bunted in front of the plate. Maldonado grabbed the ball and tried to tag Arroyo as he ran to first. Arroyo was called safe and the Astros appealed. Super-slo-mo showed that Maldonado might have tagged Arroyo's shirt sleeve, but there was no noticeable ripple in the fabric. However, the call was reversed and went down as a regular old sacrifice. Verdugo went to third on Vázquez's groundout, but Hernández fanned on a high fastball, the only time he did not reach base.

Tanner Houck pitched the sixth. McCormick singled of Arroyo's glove with one out and Altuve launched a two-run homer with two down. 

With the score now tied at 3-3, the Red Sox seventh was infuriating as Bogaerts, Devers, and Martinez started swinging at everything out of the strike zone. Schwarber led off against Brooks Raley with a single. Bogaerts took a strike and then went after three straight pitches out of the zone: foul, foul, swing/miss. All five of the pitches Devers saw were out of the zone; he swung at three of them: swing/miss, ball, swing/miss, ball, F8.

Houston changed pitchers, but Martinez stayed with the "plan" against Ryan Stanek. All five pitches he saw were out of the zone and he swung at three of them: called strike, swing/miss, ball, foul, 6-4 FC. That disturbing lack of plate discipline made it doubly frustrating to see Correa belt a two-out homer to deep left, giving the Astros their first lead, 4-3.

The Red Sox were trailing by one run with six outs to go. The Astros went with right-hander Kendall Graveman and Cora sent up the left-hand hitting Santana to hit for righty Renfroe. Graveman had a tougher time with left-handed hitters this year, but this is Santana we're talking about. With an OPS+ of 57, he was 43% worse than an average American League hitter in 2021. Santana's overall stats in 2021 were .181/.252/.345. Against righties, they were .182/.242/.352. He cannot hit anyone. Renfroe batted .250/.286/.491 against right-handers. In this game, he was 1-for-2, with an RBI-double, against lefty Valdez and he whiffed against righty Javier.

Santana saw nine pitches before striking out. Verdugo flied to left-center, Arroyo singled off Bregman's glove at third, and pinch-hitter Travis Shaw hit a fly ball to the warning track in right.

Hernández finished the game with 11 total bases, something that has been done only 19 other times in the postseason (since 1903). It's the second time Hernández has done it in eight days. He had 11 total bases on October 8 in ALDS 2 (single, home run, 3 doubles).

Hernández is now the only player in major league history to have 11+ total bases in a postseason game three times. He hit three home runs (for 12 bases) in 2017 NLCS 5 for the Dodgers. Babe Ruth had 12 total bases twice and George Brett had games of 11 and 12.

The record is 14 bases, set by Bob Robertson of the Pirates (1971 NLCS 2) and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals (2011 WS 3).

Most 4-Hit Games In Same Postseason

3 – Albert Pujols, 2011 Cardinals
2 – Kiké Hernández, 2021 Red Sox
2 – George Brett, 1985 Royals
2 – Robin Yount, 1982 Brewers

Most Career Postseason Games With 10+ Total Bases

3 – Kiké Hernández (2017 Dodgers, 2021 Red Sox (2))
2 – Babe Ruth (1926 Yankees, 1928 Yankees)
2 – Albert Pujols (2011 Cardinals (2))
2 – George Brett (1978 Royals, 1985 Royals)
2 – Steve Garvey (1974 Dodgers, 1978 Dodgers)

Chris Sale / Framber Valdez

Reaching the ALCS should be reward enough for 2021, a season in which the Red Sox were expected to finish, by most prognosticators, third or fourth in the American League East.

Some might claim that anything after beating the Yankees (easily) in the Wild Card Game is free money. But now that we are here, the Red Sox have as good of a chance as the Astros to move on to the World Series, so winning the pennant is now the expected goal.

Those pre-season predictions from seven months ago are beyond irrelevant. All that matters is whether this Red Sox team, as constituted right now, in the mindset it possesses right now, can beat the Astros in a best-of-seven series.

As one of only four teams still standing, the Red Sox have come out on top in four of five postseason games - three of those four wins at home and two of them in heart-stopping fashion. Manager Alex Cora owns a postseason record of 15-4 (.789), which is the best winning percentage of anyone who has managed at least 15 postseason games. The natural question is: Why Not Us?

The Red Sox were 2-5 against the Astros this year, losing three of four in Houston on May 31-June 3 (2-11, 1-5, 1-2, 5-1) and losing two of three in Boston on June 8-10 (1-7, 3-8, 12-8).

The Astros won the AL West with a 95-67 record (three games better than Boston) and beat the White Sox in the ALDS 3-1. They are managed by Dusty "Stop Clogging My Bases" Baker. This is the fifth consecutive ALCS for the Astros, which is damn impressive. Houston beat the Yankees in 2017 and 2019, while losing to the Red Sox in 2018 and the Rays in 2020.

Although Nathan Eovaldi would be on his normal four days rest today, Chris Sale will get the ball  in Game 1. (Eovaldi will go in Game 2 Saturday afternoon.) Sale has recorded only 10 outs in his last two starts, but on Wednesday, Cora said Sale "feels good about where he's at".

I had a conversation with somebody today, and it was music to my ears because they said something about, "He found it in the bullpen." The last time I heard somebody found it in the bullpen was David Price in [October] '18, and he took off. . . . I think we recognized a few things that are going to get him to the point that he's more balanced and he's more direct to the plate, he's over the rubber – and if he does that, he'll be fine. . . . He's going to pitch such meaningful innings in this series and, hopefully, the World Series, and all this talk is going to be in the past.

The Red Sox made two changes to their bullpen roster for the ALCS. Darwinzon Hernandez and Hirokazu Sawamura are in and Austin Davis and Garrett Richards are out.

When Matthew Kory (Sox Outsider) heard about Sale starting tonight, he thought: "That's… terrifying."

Sale has had two major problems, and both exhibited themselves in [the first] inning [of ALDS 2, in which Sale allowed five runs]. The first is command. . . . It's likely something he's working through, but it's still a thing, and . . . bad things can happen.

The other problem is his changeup. Sale didn't throw it until pitch 23 in his last start, and that was after he'd already given up five runs, which should tell you how much confidence he has in the pitch right now. Without it he's a two pitch starter, which might've worked for him six years ago, but right now it's iffy. . . . 

Alex Cora has been very good at turning mediocre pens into good playoff pens through intelligent decision-making and strategic planning. For the Sox to make the Series he's going to have to pull a rabbit from the hat that's being worn by a rabbit whose hat he just pulled a rabbit from.

The Astros are without their best starter, Lance McCullers, who suffered a forearm injury in the ALDS. 

Kory, again:

The Astros batters were first in baseball in fWAR and first in wRC+. They were also first in batting average, on-base percentage, and third in slugging (behind Toronto and Boston). They're the best hitting team at home and also the best hitting team on the road. . . .

The thing they do best is put the ball in play . . . The Astros as a team struck out 19.8 percent of the time this season, least in baseball . . .

The Red Sox are not a good defensive team. They have bad range and they make too many mistakes. . . . In the ALDS, Red Sox pitchers were able to mitigate the team's defensive issues by striking out a lot of Rays hitters . . . [but] the Astros don't strike out. . . .

Kory concedes that "it's hard to pick the Red Sox in this series", even with Houston's rotation being without McCullers. Perhaps. I'm sure that's what most people who predict these things are predicting. Of course, those people also insisted the Red Sox had no chance against Tampa Bay, that the Rays would roll right over them. (You ever notice how sports and political pundits can be wrong almost 100% of the time and never get lose their cushy jobs?)

My plan (which is actually the only thing I can do) is to watch the games and hope I see a lot of things I like.


laura k said...

It is on.

Paul Hickman said...

Ryne Stanek reminds me of Axl Rose & looks like he should be in Guns & Roses OR a Texas Barroom Brawl ...... or probably both !