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Astros' Bats Come Alive Late to Run Away With ALCS Game 1 Win

The Red Sox crumbled late after mounting a mid-game comeback against Justin Verlander. A pair of ninth-inning homers provided Houston with all the insurance runs it needed in an ALCS Game 1 win.

BOSTON — For a matchup of the two best teams in baseball, ALCS Game 1 was an unexpectedly messy affair. Full of walks, hit batters, errors, dodgy umpiring and long stretches of inaction, Saturday night’s series opener won’t find its way onto many highlight reels. But the Astros did just enough to take the win, downing the Red Sox, 7–2, at Fenway Park. Here are three thoughts on a rough game.

Sale Canceled

Our promised Chris Sale-Justin Verlander duel fizzled out right from the start. Hitting just 91 mph with his first fastball of the night, Sale labored through four precarious innings, his velocity sapped and his command non-existent. Houston turned the pressure up in the second, loading the bases on a pair of walks and a hit by pitch with two outs. Sale battled George Springer for eight pitches before leaving a 93-mph fastball in the heart of the plate, which Springer banged under Eduardo Nuñez’s glove at third for a two-run single.

Sale escaped that frame without further damage, but it was clear his night wouldn’t be a long one, as he needed 50 pitches to get his first six outs. Worse, his stuff was fooling no one, drawing only one swing and miss through the first 11 batters of the game. Unable to locate his slider and with his fastball averaging just 92 mph, it’s a miracle the lanky lefty got through a potent Astros lineup twice and allowed just the two runs on one hit.

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Things got slightly better as the night went on. Sale’s third inning was scoreless, and he struck out two in a perfect fourth, seemingly regaining the feel on his slider. But by that point, his fastball had dipped to 88–89 mph, and with the top of the order looming for a third time and Sale already at 86 pitches, manager Alex Cora asked for no more, turning to righty Joe Kelly in the fifth.

That Sale kept the Astros at bay and finished somewhat strong are the only positives for Boston from an otherwise gloomy outing—four innings, one hit, two runs, four walks, five strikeouts and just 58% of his pitches going for strikes. Whether the issue is mechanical or physical or a combination of the two (or perhaps a reaction to the chilly weather; temperature at first pitch was 50 degrees and dropped from there), the Red Sox stand no chance of defeating Houston if Sale isn’t right.

Funky Fifth, Sloppy Sixth

Game 1 ended up hinging on two bizarre and slow half-frames—the bottom of the fifth and the top of the sixth—in which Boston tied things up against Verlander, only to give the lead right back to Houston.

Verlander cruised through the first four innings, throwing just 48 pitches and retiring 10 straight at one point while holding a 2–0 lead. But after a Steve Pearce single to open the fifth and a three-pitch strikeout of Brock Holt for the first out, Verlander’s command deserted him. He walked the free-swinging Nuñez on five pitches, walked Jackie Bradley Jr. to load the bases, then went 0–2 on pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland before walking him on six pitches to force in a run. Two batters later, Verlander spiked a curveball that skipped past Martin Maldonado behind the plate; Bradley Jr., on third after a Mookie Betts groundout, scampered home to tie the game at two.

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Verlander recovered from there, punching out Andrew Benintendi on a borderline strike to end the inning. That call prompted lots of anger from Benintendi and a full-blown mid-inning outburst from Cora, who was ejected for letting home plate umpire James Hoye know just how he felt about his strike zone.

Things got stranger in the top of the sixth. Kelly, working his second inning in relief of Sale, had time called on him late by leadoff hitter Alex Bregman, then plunked him on the next pitch. A brief staredown ensued between Bregman and Kelly, though whether the hit by pitch was intentional was clouded by the appearance of the Red Sox’ trainer immediately after. That brief mound visit resulted in no changes, and Kelly followed up by getting Yuli Gurriel to tap a ball right to Nuñez at third—only for Nuñez to slip and bobble, turning a sure double play into two on with no one out.

Kelly nearly got out of the mess, getting Tyler White to pop up to second on a 3–1 pitch, then falling behind Marwin Gonzalez, 3–0, before striking him out swinging. But his luck ran out against Carlos Correa, who muscled a 100-mph inside fastball into left-center to score Bregman—who gave Kelly yet another hard stare as he crossed home.

So to recap: four walks, a game-tying wild pitch, a manager ejection, a possibly intentional hit by pitch, a bad error on a routine play, lots of disputed strike calls, and three runs scored across two half-innings that took close to an hour to play in full. That erratic stretch of baseball ended up being both decisive and a microcosm for the night.

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Pressure’s On Price

With Sale struggling in Game 1 and the Sox trailing in the series, Boston’s ALCS hopes rest on a man who is arguably the worst postseason pitcher alive. Much has been made of David Price’s constant problems in October as a starter, and the worries about his fitness didn’t get any better after he was bombed in a short and brutal Division Series start against the Yankees. Now the pitcher with a career 5.28 ERA in the playoffs is tasked with out-dueling Gerrit Cole, the Astros’ co-ace who struck out 12 across seven innings against Cleveland in his lone ALDS start.

“I really don’t have an answer for it,” Price said before Game 1 of his postseason struggles, echoing similar remarks after his disaster outing against the Yankees and, safe to say, pretty much every time he’s been asked about the subject. “It’s different baseball. It is. It’s fun. I enjoy it. Haven’t been successful the way that I know I can be and will be, but I look forward to getting out there tomorrow.”

Aside from Houston’s hitters, he may be the only one. Price’s track record has made him difficult to trust, and facing an Astros lineup loaded with righthanded power, he’s going to have to dance between raindrops. And a lengthy start would be welcome, as Boston had to burn through five relievers behind Sale (though, in one of the few positives of the night for the Red Sox, not closer Craig Kimbrel).