BOSTON—Anything can happen in a short series, they say. You can’t predict baseball! That’s why they play the games.
It took less than half an hour of this ALDS for those truisms to feel laughable. The Red Sox knew they were underdogs against the 101-game-winning, historic-offense-having Astros, but when you can throw ace Chris Sale twice in a series, you still have a shot. Then Sale gave up back-to-back home runs in the first inning of Game 1. Boston lost 8–2. Game 2 starter Drew Pomeranz lasted two frames. Boston lost 8–2.
“They’ve done everything right,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters after the second consecutive drubbing. “And we haven’t done anything right.”
Even after the Red Sox won Game 3, they seemed more exhausted than anything else. You’ve got to give them credit for trying: They still came back out there Monday for Game 4 and ground it out. Manager John Farrell got ejected arguing balls and strikes on behalf of Pedroia, Sale got 14 outs on short rest, third baseman Rafael Devers hit a ninth-inning inside-the-park home run. But Boston knew what everyone else is about to find out: Houston is a juggernaut.
Many people forgot about the Astros in between crowning the Dodgers the best team ever and arguing about whether the Indians’ 22-game win streak was truly the longest ever (note: No. The 1916 Giants’ famous tie was actually a game called due to darkness and replayed the next day), but it was Houston atop the leaderboard the first two months of the season.
The organization’s offensive philosophy—don’t swing unless you think you can hit a home run—sounds aspirational until you watch the Astros strike out fewer than six times in a third of their games. Six of their starters make contact more than 80% of the time they swing. Shortstop Carlos Correa—a laggard at 78.9%—did not whiff at a pitch in this series until Game 4. They became only the third team in the last 100 years to lead the league in slugging percentage while finishing last in strikeouts.
And the pitching! The bullpen remains something of a weak spot, having stumbled to a 4.49 second-half ERA and not added any significant pieces, but manager A.J. Hinch can paper over those holes with his rotation. It was good enough when lefthander Dallas Keuchel led it, but GM Jeff Luhnow added ace righthander Justin Verlander from the Tigers at the waiver trade deadline on Aug. 31. Following those two is a collection of second-tier starters who can trade three- or four-inning spurts, as they did in this series outside of the Verlander and Keuchel starts. Failing that, any bullpen improves when you add a former Cy Young Award–winner to it, as they did Monday.
Game 4 was exciting the way rewatching a thriller is exciting: You can appreciate all the twists and turns, your heart can even race, but there is comfort in knowing the ending. When Verlander entered the game up one with one out and one on in the fifth—the first relief appearance of his life—and promptly gave up a home run, maybe your pulse quickened. When Sale, who had relieved yet another Red Sox starter driven from the game before the fourth, strung zeroes on the board, you were probably impressed. And when Devers drilled that ball into the gap to bring the game within one, you might have risen to your feet. But this was the most mismatched of the division series, and it was only a matter of time.
That ends now for the Astros. This is an era of imbalance in baseball, as teams with bare cupboards grow more willing to tear things down and start over. (That’s how Houston got here, after all.) The result is a few world-beaters, some cellar-dwellers and not a lot in the middle. All that dulls the drama of the regular season, but the playoffs are better for it.
Either the Indians or the Yankees await, and beyond that lie those Dodgers or a Cubs team 12 months’ removed from a championship or a dangerous Diamondbacks lineup or the Nationals and their dual aces. Even Houston is probably only favored over half those teams. Cleveland especially would seem to be a difficult matchup. Its pitching struck out the most hitters in the league this season while allowing the fewest home runs, which could neutralize Houston’s hard-contact approach.
From the Champagne-drenched Fenway Park visitors’ clubhouse, the Astros did not seem especially concerned about that possibility. “I’d take us over anyone,” says Keuchel.
Of course, the Indians and the Dodgers and the Cubs and all the rest would say the same. That’s why they play the games.