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.

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.

Laz call finishes Super Tuesday

Jason Castro

What should have been strike three, side retired, game tied in the top of the ninth in Boston Tuesday night . . .

One game’s eighth inning was topped only by another game’s ninth. One team returning from the near-threshold of a too-early winter vacation was topped by another team returning from the threshold of a 3-1 series hole. One earthquake on the West Cost topped by one hurricane in the northeast.

Could anything to come be any more earth-moving or element-splitting than National League Championship Series Game Three and American League Championship Series Game Four?

Well, that may depend among other things upon who’s calling balls and strikes in either set’s remaining games. Because the rule book third strike that should have been called in the top of the ninth in Fenway Park didn’t send the Red Sox tied to the bottom of the ninth with yet another chance to walk off a postseason win.

Reality check. There were bad pitch calls in both NLCS Game Three and ALCS Game Four. Against all sides. There didn’t seem any particular favour or blessing bestowed particularly upon the Braves and the Dodgers out west or the Astros and the Red Sox back east.

When Laz Diaz called ball two on what even Ray Charles would have seen was strike three to Astros catcher Jason Castro, side retired, it might not necessarily have opened the door to that fresh Red Sox walkoff win. But they should have had the chance to try. Or at least to send the game to extra innings.

Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who’d pitched well enough in Game Two and should now have retired the side in Game Four’s top of the ninth, admitted postgame he thought he’d nailed the punchout. “I thought it was a strike,” the stout righthander said, “but again, I’m in the moment. I’m trying to make my pitches. I’m attacking the zone.”

Castro hinted that he, too, thought he was frozen alive in his own postgame comment. “Where that pitch started,” he said, “I didn’t think it was one I could pull the trigger on. It was a ball, then I was able to move on to the next pitch.”

He moved on to foul the next pitch off, rap a single the other way to right field sending Carlos Correa (leadoff double) home with the tiebreaking run, and leave the vault open for a walk and Eovaldi’s exit in favour of Red Sox reliever Martin Perez. The vault stayed unguarded for a three-run double (Michael Brantley), a free pass (to Alex Bregman), two RBI singles (Yordan Alvarez and Correa batting the second time in the inning), another RBI single (Kyle Tucker), and an inning-ending fly out (Yuli Gurriel).

The Red Sox and the Astros kept things to a 2-1 Red Sox lead until Jose Altuve tied it with a home run in the top of the eighth. Neither team hit particularly well against either Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta or each other’s bullpens until then. The Red Sox also led the entire Show in comeback wins on the regular season.

They didn’t have any similar self-resurrection in them in the bottom of the ninth.

Astros reliever Ryan Pressly surrendered a pair of two-out singles (Kike Hernandez, Rafael Devers), saw Castro let a pitch escape into a passed ball setting up second and third with two outs—a situation in which the Red Sox are customarily dangerous—but strike Xander Bogaerts out swinging for the 9-2 Astros win and ALCS tie.

Diaz blew 23 pitch calls Tuesday night, according to ESPN Stats & Info and cited by ESPN columnist Jeff Passan. He blew twelve thrown by Red Sox pitchers and eleven thrown by Astros pitchers. “[T]he one everyone— at least everyone in Boston—is going to remember,” Passan said soberly, “is the Nathan Eovaldi curve.”

“Good teams adjust to the ump,” snorted a followup tweeter. We’ll assume that tweeter couldn’t care less about getting it right by, you know, the actual rule book, even when a side should have been retired or when championships or progress toward them are on the line squarely enough.

To think that the Dodgers thought they’d stolen the day’s headlines, in Dodger Stadium far earlier, when they spent most of NLCS Game Three missing no opportunities to miss opportunities, until—standing five outs from season over—Cody Belllinger hit a three-run homer, before a base hit and a ground out set the table for Mookie Betts’s tiebreaking and ultimately game-winning RBI double.

And, for Kenley Jansen to strike out the side in the top of the ninth to secure the 6-5 Dodger win.

“it’s just hard to imagine a bigger hit,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame about Bellinger turning on Braves reliever Luke Jackson’s high fastball and sending it into the right center field bleachers.

Just like that, the Dodgers taking the early 2-0 lead on (stop me if you heard this after Game Two) Corey Seager’s first-inning two-run homer, the Braves tearing Dodger starter Walker Buehler apart for four runs in the top of the fourth, then the Braves tacking a fifth run onto the board against reliever Ryan Bickford in the top of the fifth, seemed a pleasant memory. Even if the Braves still have a 2-1 NLCS lead.

“Does this feel like a dagger?” Jackson asked postgame. Then, he answered. “No. This is just, you know, a speed bump.” Ordinary speed bumps in ordinary roads don’t destroy undercarriages as broadly as Bellinger and Betts destroyed the Braves Tuesday afternoon.

To hear Bellinger say it, it’s just hard to imagine a tougher hit. “Yeah, it’s not a hitter’s pitch right there,” he said postgame. “But in the moment, whatever happened, I saw it and I just tried to put the barrel on it and continue to pass the baton.” He passed the baton, all right, and Chris Taylor swung it for a followup single to chase Jackson in favour of Jesse Chavez.

There’s a story in and of itself. Chavez warmed up but finally sat back down in the Braves bullpen three times earlier in the game, before he was up and throwing in the eighth yet again. He probably threw the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches in all four warmup. He managed to induce the second Dodger out on pinch hitter Matt Beatty’s grounder.

He lived long enough for the Mookie Monster to split the right center field gap on the first pitch, sending Taylor home with the sixth hard-won Dodger run of the day. If you can tell me what’s brilliant about warming up and sitting down a pitcher three times before warming him up yet again, then bringing him in as gassed as the day is long, you’re a better manperson than I.

Well before Eovaldi threw the third strike that wasn’t, longtime Boston Globe scribe turned MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons tweeted, “the best interests of baseball does not not include Laz Diaz theoretically trying to call balks and strikes in post- season.” Grammatical flaw and malaprop to one side, Diaz didn’t try even theoretically but failed factually 23 times.

Jerry Meals wasn’t exactly a virtuoso behind the plate so far as both the Braves and the Dodgers were concerned. But he didn’t blow the third strike that should have retired a side with a League Championship Series game tied to the bottom of the ninth, either.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Correa of Castro finally singling him home with the tiebreaker, “but I admire that. Because I will tell you I wouldn’t be able to do that. Sitting down for that long and then going out there facing a guy throwing 100 in crunch time? That’s special.”

All Correa left out was the should-have-been side-retiring third strike that wasn’t. If the Red Sox don’t forget their now-lost home field advantage and dust themselves off to go on and take the set and the pennant, it might become the most infamous third strike that wasn’t in New England history. If not beyond.

ALCS Game Three: Rock and troll

Carlos Correa, Eduardo Rodriguez

Rodriguez (right) couldn’t resist trolling Carlos (It’s My Time!) Correa as the top of the sixth ended . . .

Carlos Correa grounded out to end the Astros’s sixth Tuesday night. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez couldn’t resist pointing to his wrist, trolling Correa’s becoming-more-familiar “It’s my time!” gesture whenever nailing a key Astros hit. There was a birthday boy in the house who wasn’t necessarily amused.

“No, no,” Alex Cora hollered, as Rodriguez returned to the dugout during the sides changing. “Don’t do that!” The last thing the manager wanted on his 46th birthday was any of his Red Sox poking the Houston bear they were taking down, before the bear could even think about stealing their picnic baskets.

Not even the pitcher who’d just pitched six solid innings the only blemish of which was a three-run homer two innings earlier. Not even while the Red Sox still held a six-run lead that finished in a 12-3 demolition giving the Red Sox a 2-1 American League Championship Series advantage and the Astros a monumental migraine.

An inning and a half worth of three-up, three-down baseball that looked to shape into a pitching duel between Rodriguez and Astros starter Jose Urquidy got ripped into a Red Sox demolition in the bottom of the second after starting as a mere tear. Two walks sandwiching a J.D. Martinez one-out double merely loaded the bases for Christian Vazquez’s line single the other way to right field and kept them there.

Oops. Christian Arroyo ripped one off the mound and off Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to send Martinez home with a second Red Sox run. Falling into an early 2-0 hole with ducks still on the pond against these Astros still seemed surmountable. Until Kyle Schwarber told them otherwise.

After taking ball one inside, ball two downstairs, and ball three just inside, Schwarber took Urquidy’s fastball around the middle halfway up the right field seats. It was the third salami slice for the Red Sox in three ALCS games. As if slicing two in Game Two wasn’t precedent enough, the Schwarbinator’s blast made the Red Sox the first ever to slice three in any postseason series.

Kiké Hernández followed Schwarber at once with a base hit pulled up the left field line, and Xander Bogaerts ripped a single up the pipe one out later, and finally Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy out of there before the Red Sox could cover his grave. Yimi Garcia shook off a second-and-third-making wild pitch to dispatch Alex Verdugo for the side at last, but aftershocks were still to come.

They started an inning later, when Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, stole second, then took third when Astros catcher Martin Maldonado’s throw to second bounced away from Altuve, before coming home on Vazquez’s floating base hit into short center. Then Arroyo drove Garcia’s slightly hanging slide into the rear row of the Green Monster seats.

The Astros may have punctured the impenetrable when Astros center fielder Kyle Tucker parked one into the right field seats with Michael Brantley (leadoff single) and Yordan Alvarez (one-out single banged off the Monster but played perfectly by left fielder Verdugo to hold him) aboard in the top of the fourth.

Two innings and three Astro pitchers later, Rafael Devers took a leadoff walk and the Astros got two outs quick enough to follow, especially center field insertion Jose Siri’s sliding catch running in long to take Verdugo’s floater into shallow center. Phil Maton then relieved Brooks Raley for the Astros, and he arrived just in time to feed Martinez something to hit into the Monster seats about as deep as Arroyo’s blast traveled.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator slicing salami in the second to start the Red Sox romp in earnest . . .

Before this ALCS ends, the Red Sox may need to put new tires on the laundry cart into which they dump their home run hitters to celebrate the blasts in each moment. They’re already down to the last millimeter of tread as it is.

As if making sure the sealant on the first puncture held fast, Devers turned on Astro relieve Ryan Stanek’s first one-out pitch in the bottom of the eighth and sent that into the Monster seats, too. Renfroe’s diving catch on Correa’s two-out, opposite-field drive in the top of the ninth must have felt like the first mercy shown the Astros all night long.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom wondered aloud whether his charges might be tipping pitches. Not willing to commit to that quite all the way, he acknowledged that—between the Red Sox’s postseason plate discipline and all-fields approaches and Astro pitchers falling behind in counts so often now—he’s more than a little concerned.

“This is a very good hitting team,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “and they’re very adept at picking up little things, much more so than most teams,” Strom said. “We need to be very cognizant of the little things, tipping-type things, things like that, that they’re very astute at. We’ve just gotten behind hitters.”

Cora said the Red Sox approach began changing when Schwarber came aboard in a July trade with the Nationals. “We were expanding,” Cora said, meaning the strike zone. “We didn’t walk too much, and when he got here and when he started playing, it was different. It’s a different at-bat, and other guys have followed his lead, and right now, like I said, this is the best I’ve seen this team this season offensively.”

Correa thinks the Red Sox aren’t picking up Astro pitch tips so much as they’re just doing their jobs at the plate when the Astros’ pitchers aren’t doing theirs on the mound. As an Astro, it’s murder for Correa. But as a baseball fan, pardon the expression, it’s a blast.

“It’s fun to watch as a fan of the sport, see how everybody in the lineup has the same approach,” the shortstop said. “They’re not chasing. They’re staying in the zone. They’re not swinging at borderline pitches. It’s beautiful what they’re doing. We’ve got to find a way to throw more strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark.”

But as much talk came about Rodriguez giving Correa a taste of his own celebratory medicine as about the Red Sox’s thorough dismantling of the Astros’ balky pitching staff and shaky offense—particularly their big three of Altuve, Brantley, and Alex Bregman now standing a combined 5-for-36 in the set so far—after the game finally ended.

Cora didn’t exactly hold it against Rodriguez, making a point of embracing his pitcher when Rodriguez returned to the dugout. But he still didn’t want Rodriguez or any of his players re-awakening the suddenly sleeping Astro giants.

“We don’t act that way,” he said postgame. “We just show up, we play, and we move on, and he knows. I let him know. We don’t have to do that. If we’re looking for motivation outside of what we’re trying to accomplish, we’re in the wrong business. The only motivation we have is to win four games against them and move on to the next round.”

Correa didn’t exactly mind. The way he spoke postgame, you’d have thought the Astros forgot about such concepts as bulletin-board fodder. “He did my celebration,” said the shortstop liable to command a nice free agency deal this winter, no matter his Astrogate past.

“I thought it was kind of cool,” continued Correa, who’d done his “It’s my time” wrist-tap in Game One after breaking a three-all tie with an eighth-inning bomb. “It’s just the way baseball should trend. I loved it personally . . . I keep it real all the time and say how it is.”

Rodriguez admitted he was caught up in the moment after getting Correa to end the sixth. Cora was stern but not exactly harsh with his pitcher back in the dugout. His embrace fit perfectly with Rodriguez’s previous insistence that Cora was like a father or older brother to his players as well as a manager.

“He understands that we’re not that way.” said Cora, whose Red Sox almost got humbled out of the races in the second half between injuries, COVID sufferings, and a bullpen remake. “We talk about humble approach and humble players, and that’s who we are. We like to grind, and we like to play, but we don’t do that.”

Well, good Lord, a team hammering and blasting its way to a rout can’t be faulted for being just a little less than humble in the moment here and there. Can they?

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.