ALCS Game Five: Nuts to that

Chris Sale

“I was good for five, then sucked for one. I left my nuts out on that mound.”—Chris Sale, after ALCS Game Five.

It’s bad enough when the move you make gets turned into disaster. It’s worse when the move you don’t make explodes in your face—and puts you on the threshold of postseason elimination.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, more creative and fearless than many managers in baseball today, learned the hard way in the top of the sixth in American League Championship Series Game Five Wednesday evening.

He needed to keep the Astros to a 1-0 lead on a night the usually formidable, tenacious, but suddenly feeble Red Sox bats had nothing to show against Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez.

Valdez would carve them like turkeys over most of his eventual eight innings’ work other than one seventh-inning slice. But it was Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez who stuffed the Red Sox birds first and almost foremost.

With Jose Altuve opening the sixth with a walk, Michael Brantley aboard when Red Sox first baseman Kyle Schwarber couldn’t hold onto Xander Bogaerts’s throw from shortstop, and second and third when Alex Bregman was thrown out at first on a clunking grounder back to Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, up stepped Alvarez.

The same Alvarez responsible for the game’s only scoring with a first-pitch leadoff home run into the Green Monster seats in the top of the second. The same Alvarez who nailed a long one-out single off the top of the Monster sending Bregman to third in the top of the fourth, before Sale struck Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker out swinging to end that inning.

This was one time today’s version of Casey Stengel might have been served far better if he’d decided no way would Alvarez get a third crack at Sale, and ordered the intentional walk to load the bases, setting up a prospective inning-ending double play.

Cora would have had far better odds letting Sale pitch instead to Correa, whom he’d struck out twice on the day already. But he let Sale pitch to Alvarez first. And Alvarez shot a line drive the other way down the left field line, sending Altuve and Brantley home with the second and third unanswered Astro runs.

Cora lifted his stout starter—who’d pitched five innings of one-run, seven-strikeout, two-hit baseball until he walked out for the sixth. Sale wouldn’t blame Cora, though. “I was good for five, then sucked for one,” said the lefthander still getting his wings back into tune after recovering from Tommy John surgery. “I left my nuts out on that mound tonight, that’s for sure.”

You have to give Sale credit for a somewhat unique way to express his self-verdict. You may yet end up giving him the blame for writing the Red Sox’s 2021 postseason epitaph.

Whatever Sale left on the mound, the Red Sox bullpen had enough of their nuts handed to them, coarsely chopped, for six more runs and a 9-1 Astros win that sends the ALCS back to Houston, with the Astros having two chances to go to the World Series and the Red Sox needing to beg, borrow, steal, sneak themselves two. Whatever works.

Ryan Brasier relieved Sale to let an RBI single tack a fourth run onto Sale’s jacket before allowing two of his own, on Jose Siri’s shallow floating single to right sending Tucker and Yuli Gurriel home.

Hansel Robles’s throwing error on a pickoff attempt in the top of the seventh let Altuve have second on the house and set Brantley up to fire an RBI single up the pipe, before getting Bregman to dial Area Code 6-4-3 and stepping aside for Darwinzon Hernandez.

Hernandez dropped a called third strike in on Alvarez, of all people, to end the inning. He yielded to Hirokazu Sawamura after a one-out walk to Tucker in the eighth. Sawamura surrendered a single to Gurriel and wild-pitched him to second but bumped his way out a first-and-second jam striking Siri out and getting Altuve to line out to left for the side.

But Martin Perez came on for the ninth and found himself with two on, nobody out, when Alvarez bounced sharply right back to the box and Perez knocked the ball down, chased briefly, grabbed it, and threw Alverez out.

Then Cora ordered the free pass—to Correa, who hadn’t exactly bedeviled the Red Sox on the night. And when Red Sox second baseman Christian Arroyo took Tucker’s grounder on the dead run in and threw home to force a sliding Brantley out at the plate, it was impossible to forget the intentional walk that wasn’t back in the sixth. Especially when Gurriel promptly punched a base hit to center, sending Bregman and Correa home too handily.

The only Red Sox answer for any of that mayhem was Rafael Devers sending a one-out, none-on tracer into the Monster seats in the bottom of the seventh. Otherwise they spent the evening doing what the Astros did earlier in the set, showing futility with men in scoring position (0-for-4) while the Astros looked more like the earlier-set Red Sox. (6-for-15.)

What compelled Cora to send Sale back out for the sixth? The Red Sox manager to his credit has rarely if ever shown an allergy to hooking a starter before that starter can get hooked.

“I understand how people think,” Cora said postgame, “but there were two lefties coming up too in that pocket, right? Brantley, who he did an amazing job early on, and we had Alvarez. Still, he is Chris Sale. He is a lefty. He has made a living getting lefties out.”

Sale did strike Brantley out twice before the sixth. But it couldn’t and shouldn’t have escaped Cora’s usually fine-tuned eye that Alvarez was manhandling Sale entirely on his own before the sixth.

Nor should it have escaped Cora’s analytically-inclined eye that, since Alvarez showed up in the Show at all, the Astros left fielder has .580 slugging percentage against lefthanded pitching—the highest lefthander-on-lefthander slugging percentage in the majors over that span.

Cora may also think twice before using Perez in high leverage again. The lefthander’s regular-season 4.82 fielding-independent pitching rate should have been flashing “danger, Will Robinson” as it was. But Perez only appeared in high leverage 32 percent of his season’s assignments. In the Game Four ninth, Brantley tore a three-run double out of him to put the game beyond reach at last.

We’ll learn the hard way, too, whether using his Game Six starter Nathan Eovaldi to open the Game Four ninth in relief will end up hurting, not helping. Especially with Eovaldi now going out to pitch not to send the Red Sox to the World Series but to stay alive at all.

Sure, the Red Sox got jobbed when plate umpire Laz Diaz called ball two on what should have been inning-ending strike three, enabling the Red Sox a better shot at coming back to win. But giving the Astros an unnecessarily extra look at the tenacious righthander may yet burn Cora and the Sox.

First things first. If the Red Sox want a little extra inspiration and moral support, Cora can’t afford to outsmart himself again. Then, they ought to dial the 2019 Nationals.

Winning that World Series, the Nats proved you can wreck the Astros in their own house even once back-to-back, never mind twice in the biggest set of them all. To get to that biggest set this time, the Red Sox now need all of that kind of help that they can get.

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