The Boston Red Sox are going to the World Series. Here are three thoughts after Thursday night’s ALCS Game 5 at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, in which the Red Sox beat the Astros 4-1 to win the series four games to one.
DAVID PRICE: POSTSEASON WINNER!
You know the stats. Entering Thursday, Price—the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, the owner of a seven-year, $217 million contract—had made 11 postseason starts, and he had never recorded a victory in any of them. In fact, his team had ultimately won just one of those starts, in Game 2 of this ALCS. His postseason ERA was 5.42, more than two runs above his career standard, and it ate away at him. After another mediocre performance in Game 2—four earned runs in 4 2/3 innings—he said, simply, “I expect myself to be great in big moments, and I haven't done that thus far in my career.”
Another big moment arrived in the form of Game 5. Due to Chris Sale’s stomach bug, Red Sox manager Alex Cora called upon Price to face one of the league’s best lineups on three days’ rest—not all of which were restful, as he’d spent most of the last two innings of Wednesday night’s Game 4 throwing in the bullpen, in case he was needed in emergency relief of a shaky Craig Kimbrel.
Even so, and finally: Price was great.
Finally, in an October game, Price had command of his full repertoire, through six spellbinding innings and 93 pitches. Finally, his fastball was as explosive as he hoped, and finally, his changeup was as baffling. His changeup, actually, was what had so often been missing in the past, and what he found on Thursday. He threw 39 of them, 30 for strikes, twelve for swinging strikes. The Astros hit only five of them fair. None fell in for a hit.
In the end, Price allowed just three hits and no walks, and struck out nine. “I understand the narratives,” Price had said. “I get that. I deserve those narratives.” On Thursday, he wrote a new story, one in which he pitched his team into the World Series.
Justin Verlander was certain he’d struck out J.D. Martinez with a 90-mph slider in the top of the third in a scoreless game. Martin Maldonado was certain of it. All of the pitch tracking technology we have was certain of it, too. But Chris Guccione, the home plate umpire, called it a ball.
Verlander’s next pitch was a high curveball—strike four, to most—and Martinez turned on it, crushing it 396 feet to left field. The Sox led 1-0, and never looked back.
Martinez, the slugger whom the Astros unceremoniously cut at the end of spring training in 2014—just before he became one of the game’s best hitters, which he remains—has maintained this season that he no longer feels a grudge towards his old team. “There’s really no animosity there,” he said. “In a sense they did me a favor by allowing me to leave and going to play on another team. And if it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be here right now. Who knows where I would have been?”
The Astros may have a World Series title to their name, but they're still the team that cut J.D. Martinez.
His journey took him to the Red Sox, with whom he signed a five-year, $110 million free agent contract last year, and for whom he nearly won a Triple Crown, finishing second in the A.L. in batting average (.330) and home runs (43) and first in RBIs (130). Until Thursday, though, he had been quiet against his old team, with just three hits in 15 at-bats, none of them homers.
That changed, with a reprieve from Guccione, in the third, and the result was that he got the revenge he claimed he didn’t want, but would accept all the same. Rafael Devers’ three-run homer off of Verlander in the sixth—no help from the umpire needed there—clinched it. “It’s a little sweeter,” Martinez admitted on TBS after dispatching his old team. “Obviously.”
THE ASTROS WILL BE BACK
The Astros failed to become baseball’s first back-to-back champions since the 2000 Yankees, even though this year’s club was in most ways superior to last season’s. In fact, the fundamentals suggested that the 2018 Astros were one of the best teams in several generations: their regular season Pythagorean win expectation, based upon their league-best +263 run differential, was the game’s second-highest since World War II.
Of course, the only club the Astros trailed in that category, the `69 Orioles, didn’t win the World Series, either. Sometimes, fate twists against even the best of teams, and the Astros will long think of how that happened in this series—particularly in Game 4, when Joe West might have made a different call, or Tony Kemp might have stopped at first, or Andrew Benintendi’s dive might have come up a couple of inches short. And, sometimes, they run up against a team that is simply better in a particular best-of-seven scenario, as the Amazin’ Mets were against those Orioles of nearly a half a century ago, and the Red Sox undeniably were in this ALCS.
Now the Red Sox look ahead to Tuesday night, when they’ll host Game 1 of the World Series against either the Dodgers or Brewers with a roster that will be significantly more rested than they could ever have anticipated, thanks to their early knock-out of Houston. The Astros, meanwhile, must peer to next March 28, when they open the 2019 season against the Rays.
The good news, for Houston, is that they will again be a power. As I explore in my book Astroball, Jeff Luhnow and his crew did not suffer through so much misery, in the early part of this decade, to build a team with a small window to win. Instead, the Astros are designed to roll the dice in the postseason as many times as possible, and their nucleus will remain intact: Alex Bregman; George Springer; Jose Altuve, with a healthy knee; Carlos Correa, with a healthy back; Verlander; Gerrit Cole; almost all the bullpen. They do have a number of impending free agents—Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Marwin Gonzalez, most notably—but they also have two of the game’s consensus Top-10 prospects, outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley, ready to step in.
This is not the end, by any means, for the Astros, in the long term. Now, though, it is time to appreciate the marvelous Red Sox—and, especially, the finally marvelous David Price.