ALCS Game Six: Not even close

None of Alex Cora’s tactical brilliance or strategic genius could re-awaken a slumbering collection of Red Sox.

This isn’t really going to rank among the greatest collapses in Red Sox history. But it hurts  nevertheless. It’s also likely to rank as maybe the single greatest revival in Astros history, whatever you do or don’t think of the Astros themselves.

Alex Verdugo running himself into a rally-killing double play to end the top of the seventh won’t bring him the infamy heaped upon assorted Red Sox pinatas past. This time, there’s no single figure on which Red Sox fans can take out their frustration, their rage, their sorrow.

This time, losing Game Six of this American League Championship Series and the American League pennant, there isn’t a 95th year of approaching the Promised Land only to be kicked from the mountaintop to the rocks below yet again.

Unfortunately, this time, there wasn’t an Andrew Benintendi to save their season by robbing Alex Bregman of a bases-clearing, game-winning extra base hit with a diving catch in left field. Or, a David Price to pitch six shutout innings the following day, or J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers to power their way to their last pennant.

Well, they still had Martinez and Devers this time around. But those two went 0-for-6 with a walk in seven combined plate appearances Friday night. The entire Red Sox corps went 2-for-29 with two walks in 31 plate appearances. In a game that was as tight as a hairpin turn until the bottom of the eighth.

The Red Sox rolled into the Fenway Park leg of the ALCS after splitting the first two in Minute Maid Park, then took a prompt 2-1 series lead and entered Game Four outscoring the Astros 25-13. They spent Games Four through Six being outscored by the Astros 23-3. They couldn’t even say they’d kept Game Six as tight as they’d kept Game One losing by a run.

They ran headlong into Yordan Alvarez’s ALCS MVP-winning batting show. They ran into a pair of embryonic Astros starting pitchers, Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia (especially) who picked themselves up, dusted themselves off from previous series humblings, and caught them either half asleep or over-amped at the plate.

“They were spitting on so many non-competitive breaking balls the first couple games,” Strom said of the Red Sox’s early demolitons of Valdez and Garcia, “I basically told [Valdez and Garcia], ‘If you’re going to get beat, throw your best stuff over the plate, and then you can sleep at night, rather than dance around the strike zone.’ Young pitchers start dancing a bit, and you can’t do that.”

The Red Sox proved they were better than the fringe contenders as which they were seen opening the regular season. But in the final three ALCS games, they never missed opportunities to miss opportunities. Opportunities that might have flipped any of those games into or at least toward their favour. None of manager Alex Cora’s tactical brilliance or strategic genius could overcome that.

Game Six starter Nathan Eovaldi? He Eovaldied as best he could with whatever he had left, coming out of the game in the fifth, after striking Jose Altuve out with Astros catcher Martin Maldonado (of all people) aboard with his only ALCS base hit.

But the Schwarbinator didn’t Schwarbinate. He got thatclose in the top of the sixth, but his drive to the back of left center didn’t have enough lift to leave the yard; otherwise, and he spent the evening going 0-for-4 with a walk.

The Red Sox bullpen bulled for the most part, even yielding a second Astros run in the bottom of the sixth, on behalf of getting a one-man double play by Schwarber at first. Schwarber stopped Kyle Tucker’s smash up the line, stepped on the pad, then tagged Carlos Correa out when the Astro shortstop stumbled returning to the pad.

They bulled, that is, until Tanner Houck’s third inning of work in the bottom of the eighth sandwiched two singles around a fly out to center. In came Adam Ottavino to induce a force out at second but to feed Tucker a three-run homer into the Crawford Boxes.

Kike Hernandez almost smashed his way to second and third at minimum in the top of the first, after Schwarber opened the game safe on a strikeout wild pitch. But Altuve took a splendid dive near proper shortstop in a defensive shift and stopped the ball before springing up and throwing Hernandez out by a step.

The guy the Dodgers once didn’t think was an everyday player went 1-for-4 on the night, but his one got close enough to setting up a potential tie game when he drove one bouncing high off the left center field wall for a two-out triple immediately following Schwarber’s near-miss.

That triple sent Garcia out of the game at last, after he’d manhandled the Red Sox over five-and-two-thirds innings of seven strikeout, one-hit, one-walk ball during which he exploited the Red Sox’s continuing, disappearing plate discipline with a savvy beyond his 24 years on earth and his 3.63 career fielding-independent pitching rate.

Garcia’s breaking balls danced only slightly more impressively Friday night than his routine when he’s about to throw a pitch. He does a rock-the-baby arm gesture in front of his stomach, then steps to his left, back to his right, back to his left, kicks, and throws. Let’s do the Time Warp again? Cha-cha-cha?

He may be the most fun pitcher to watch on the mound since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal with his eighteen assorted windups and ten differing leg kicks. Or, Luis Tiant with his shaky hands out of the stretch. Or, Al Hrabosky with his mad-bull stomp around the mound between pitches. Whatever Garcia’s dance was, he kept the Red Sox dance card empty.

Hernandez’s destiny was to die on third, alas, when Astro reliever Phil Maton got Devers to pop the first pitch up behind shortstop for the side. The next and last Red Sox threat came in the top of the seventh, when Martinez worked himself into a full-count walk and Verdugo bounced a base hit over Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s head into right, enabling Martinez to take third.

Up to the plate came Travis Shaw, pinch hitting for Red Sox second baseman Christian Arroyo. With one of the weakest leads off first base possible, and one of the weakest pinch hitters in the series at the plate, Verdugo bolted for second as Astro reliever Kendall Graveman struck Shaw out swinging. Verdugo was a dead pigeon when Maldonado’s throw hit Correa’s glove perfectly to tag.

Nobody really had to say it. Verdugo missed his shot at a theft by about three steps worth of a decent lead. But don’t plant the goat horns into his forehead. When all was said and too much was undone, the Red Sox for Games Four through Six had almost a full postseason roster in the goat pen.

At long enough last, they ran out of whatever fuel got them into the postseason in the first place. Against a team that knows only too well how to exploit an opponent’s shortcomings. Say what you will about the Astros—and many still do with reason enough—but they didn’t win this pennant because they fell asleep at the wrong switches at the wrong times.

Unless anyone develops real and sound evidence to the contrary, this year’s Astros did things the right way. They actually won clean this time around. Never mind having only five left from the Astrogate team. Maybe those five learned that the only thing you can do, after you’ve been exposed in the first place, is to go forth and prove you can do it straight, no chaser.

Yordan Alvarez

Yordan Alvarez—the Red Sox couldn’t get the ALCS MVP out with a search warrant or a subpoena.

They bore the brunt of their 2017-18 shame as best they could on the 2021 road before still-hostile crowds. Crowds still fuming that their lack of apologetics when exposed as illegal electronic sign-stealing cheaters were married to the pan-damn-ic last year to deny real chances to let the Astros have it.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past, but you can’t go back. All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our amazing city, and just do our thing,” said Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, reduced to one of the team cheerleaders by an arm injury that may still keep him from the World Series.

Maybe saying it that way, too, indicates that the Astros still don’t quite get why the rest of the world would rather have seen anyone including an organised crime family going to the Series now. Cora, the 2017 Astros bench coach who helped mastermind what became Astrogate, has long since been more genuinely contrite and remorseful for his role than any Astrogater still with the team. Those 2017-18 Astros who’ve shown real enough remorse did so after leaving the team.

You can’t go back, you can only go forward. You don’t want to know how many abuse victims heard that from or about their abusers, knowing in their hearts that the only proper reply was, and is, an eight-letter euphemism for steer feces. The Astros won’t really escape Astrogate’s ignominy until the last Astrogater standing on the team is gone.

Moreover, out of the remaining Astrogate minority on this year’s team, only Gurriel had a good ALCS at the plate. He might even have shaken out as the series’ MVP—he hit .455 for the set with a staggering 1.156 OPS while scoring four runs, driving six home, and going 10-for-22. If not for the one-man show named Yordan Alvarez.

Altuve? He did hit two homers but posted a .214 on-base percentage for the set. Bregman? One bomb, but a .217/.308/.348 slash line. Correa? He hit one out, too, but he didn’t exactly hit overall in the ALCS like the All-Star he was this season.

Alvarez didn’t turn up in an Astro uniform until 2019, when he was the American League’s Rookie of the Year. He lost all but two games of the short 2020 season to knee injuries and underwent two knee surgeries. He revived in 2021 with a 33-homer season. Then in the ALCS he went ludicrous.

Maybe the only time Alvarez didn’t nail yet another base hit, send another Astro runner home (his six RBIs equaled Gurriel’s), or score another run (his seven led the team in the ALCS), was whenever he might have had to answer nature’s call during any particular game.

When it mattered most, the Red Sox couldn’t get him out with a search warrant or a subpoena. Alvarez had more hits in Games Five and Six than the entire Red Sox roster did. No player before—not even any group of Hall of Famers—ever out-hit an entire team in the final two games of any postseason series. Ever.

“I think there are a lot of things that I could say that’s behind the trophy,” the Cuban-born outfielder said through his interpreter postgame, hoisting his series MVP trophy, “but all I can say is it just means everything.”

It meant everything to the Astros. It helped them keep their foundations from buckling when Eovaldi in the fourth became the first postseason pitcher since 2012 (Doug Fister, Tigers, ALCS Game One) to strike out the side allowing no runs when he had second and third and then the bases loaded.

It also kept reliever Ryan Pressly from quaking when he entered the ninth with a five-run lead but the three most dangerous Red Sox hitters looming. Nothing to it, folks. He induced a fly out to short left center from Hernandez. He struck Devers out on four pitches. Then, he got Xander Bogaerts—finishing an embarrassing 5-for-26 series, with only a two-run homer early in Game Four to show, really—to fly out to left for game, set, and Astros pennant.

Maybe no verdict on the Red Sox’s end—after being better than their notices in the regular season; after driving the Yankees out of the wild card game; after beating the 100 game-winning Rays in the division series three straight after losing Game One—will prove more true than that of Chad Jennings, writing in The Athletic:

They were, only five days ago, in control of the ALCS with the World Series nearly within reach. They were a good team. They are a good team. They could have made it to the World Series. They had a chance, a real chance, to win it all.

That is both the feather in their cap and their black mark of wasted opportunity. For nearly seven months, the Red Sox proved themselves capable of more than anyone expected, but in the three most important games of the year, they didn’t live up to the standard they themselves had set.

They’ll have all off-season to figure out how and why and to do whatever needs to be done about it. Institutionally, the Red Sox have ended past seasons in far worse shape or circumstance than now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s