- There are plenty of regrets the Red Sox hold after Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday night. Chief among them includes a questionable strike three call on Andrew Benintendi that saw manager Alex Cora get ejected.
BOSTON — For a second, maybe two, Game 1 of the ALCS—and perhaps the series as a whole—hung on James Hoye’s eyesight.
Halfway through Friday night’s series opener, what had looked like another dominant outing from Justin Verlander unexpectedly became a tense affair. Verlander’s control, once impeccable, suddenly disappeared into the chilly October air; the Red Sox’ lineup, held silent through four innings, began to form a conga line on the bases, drawing walk after walk after walk. A 2–0 lead slowly became 2–1 on a bases-loaded free pass, then 2–2 on a wild pitch. Now Verlander had two on, two out and a 3–2 count against Andrew Benintendi. Next in line if he lost the Red Sox’ leftfielder: J.D. Martinez, he of the 43 regular-season home runs and 130 RBIs, with a chance to break the game wide open.
With 38,007 fans at Fenway Park bellowing and clapping, Verlander came set, wheeled and fired a 98-mph fastball to the outside corner of the strike zone. To everyone in the stands, Benintendi, and Red Sox manager Alex Cora, it was ball four—narrowly so, but a ball nonetheless—to load the bases. But home plate umpire Hoye thought otherwise. As Benintendi bent over to undo the shin guard on his right leg, Hoye spun and punched his right arm into the air to signal strike three. A relieved Verlander walked off the field with a dazed look on his face, while a furious Benintendi slammed the shin guard and his bat to the ground before delivering some choice words to Hoye. Just like that, Boston’s rally—and their best chance at winning Game 1—was done.
“That at-bat was a huge swing at-bat,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said postgame.
The numbers bear it out. Via Fangraphs’ Win Expectancy chart, Boston had a 57.9% chance of victory immediately after Verlander’s wild pitch allowed Jackie Bradley Jr. to cross home as the tying run and moved both Christian Vázquez and Mookie Betts into scoring position. But those odds fell to 44.9% after Benintendi’s strikeout and kept falling from there once Houston re-took the lead for good in the sixth.
That strikeout, though, also saved Verlander’s night. Standing in the dugout as Benintendi’s at-bat unfolded, Hinch realized he was at a critical decision point. A hit would put Houston behind; a walk would mean facing Martinez with no room for error. It also would’ve extended the inning for Verlander, who had already thrown 32 pitches in the frame after needing just 48 in the first four. Hinch knew that, if it came to Martinez, he’d have to do something; he just wasn’t sure what.
“The difference between that being a walk and a punchout is significant on both sides,” he said. “One, [Verlander] 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.”
That issue was the ejection of Cora, who began barking at Hoye after Benintendi’s strikeout and didn’t let up through the inning change. That earned him an early exit, though Cora continued his argument even after being tossed, bounding onto the field to rain complaints upon both Hoye and first base umpire Vic Carapazza.
“You can’t argue balls and strikes, and I did, and it’s kind of embarrassing that it happens in the playoffs,” Cora said after the game. “But sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and you’ve got to defend your players.”
Cora may have saved an irate Benintendi from an ejection, but he couldn’t undo Hoye’s call. Instead of getting the bases loaded with Martinez up and Verlander perhaps out—Hinch had righthander Ryan Pressly warming in the bullpen and ready to enter—Boston had to settle for a 2–2 tie that was broken within a matter of minutes against righty Joe Kelly in the very next inning. Worse, Verlander settled back into form in the sixth, retiring the side on just nine pitches—his mysterious bout of wildness over.
“That inning, I had kind of lost my feel a bit,” Verlander said of the fifth. “I had been working out of the wind-up for a few innings in a row there. All of a sudden I’m out of the stretch, and the timing was a tick off.”
Whatever the reason for Verlander’s struggles, that topsy-turvy fifth was as close as Boston got. Pressly and Lance McCullers kept the Red Sox scoreless in the seventh and eighth, respectively, and Houston’s lineup piled four runs on reliever Brandon Workman in the ninth to put the game out of reach.
But was Hoye’s called strike a blown call? On the TBS broadcast, it looked outside, but not by much. MLB.com’s Gameday also had it just off the strike zone, but not egregiously so; Baseball Savant showed similar placement, with Verlander’s heater right on the border between ball and strike. Cora summed it up tersely: “We didn’t agree that the pitch was a strike.” Regardless, the game churned on, now with Cora watching from the clubhouse and Boston’s best opportunity gone in a flash.
To be fair, had Hoye ruled that pitch a ball, you can’t assume that the Red Sox would’ve just seized control from there. They played terribly all night, pitching poorly and giving away outs defensively. The margin of the game was bigger than one questionable strike call. But a walk to Benintendi would have been a huge momentum shift for both sides, with potential consequences rippling out not only through Game 1, but potentially the series beyond.
“When you’re given an opportunity, specifically in the playoffs, and you can capitalize, it’s huge,” Hinch said. Houston made the most of its chance, turning Verlander’s narrow escape into an immediate rally. Boston will have to hope that, in Game 2 and beyond, it can take advantage of a similar break.