The Bronx Boneheads

This is what the Yankees were afraid of being exposed? After two years, accidentally turning up during a lawsuit’s discovery phase, and a few legal contortions on behalf of blocking it from anyone else’s sight, this is what the Yankeegate letter was all about? Their own 2015-2017 replay-room reconnaissance ring, a la the 2018 Rogue Sox?

No, we’re not going to argue that electronic cheating isn’t so terrible even if it doesn’t rise quite to the Astrogate level. Agree that neither those Yankees nor those Red Sox were behaving themselves, even if the Yankees didn’t get far enough in the postseason to try it in a World Series the way the ’18 Rogue Sox probably did.

But someone, anyone. Please.

Tell me the Bronx Boneheads aren’t that deeply full of themselves that they couldn’t have withstood whatever minor slings, arrows, brickbats, and bashings would have confronted them over mere replay room reconnaissance. Tell me they’re not that ridiculous about preserving the Yankee image no matter how little their sneaky little shoplifters resemble the grand theft felons.

About the only thing the Yankee prankees seem to have done a little differently than the Rogue Sox was use their dugout phone on the road to get the stolen signs from the road replay room and then transmit it to a baserunner to send home to the batter.

Cheating is cheating? Please. This was comparable only to teen comedians ordering pizzas for deliveries to unsuspecting chumps across town. It didn’t exactly amount to seizing the pizzeria and taking hostages.

Since there were unconfirmed numbers of other teams doing likewise with their free presents from MLB, those other teams are probably laughing their fool heads off over the lengths to which the Yankees spent time and money trying to keep the Yankeegate letter from escaping into the public eye.

Yes, I said free presents from MLB. It was MLB itself that laid the replay rooms on both clubhouses in all ballparks starting in 2014. They did it with the best intentions. Perhaps naively, they forgot that boys will be boys, and presents such as those were probably bound to inspire a little extracurricular chicanery.

Since Astrogate and Soxgate’s exposure in 2019-20, the rules now involve security personnel posted at all replay rooms. Before the December-March owners’ lockout, both sides were close enough to agreeing, too, on more stringent measures such as no one but a team’s designated operator plus an MLB security worker allowed in the rooms, and even blacking out catcher’s pitch signs on the replay room monitors.

But while you have your laughs-and-halves over the Yankees resembling the siblings scrambling to Watergate coverup lengths to keep Mom and Dad from learning one of them accidentally smashed the crystal pilsner glass, causing it to shatter into a trillion shards, try to remember that this does not and will not get the 2017-18 Astros off the hook.

The Yankees, the Rogue Sox, and other teams who merely turned the replay rooms into their versions of Spy vs. Spy didn’t go to even half the lengths those Astros did for intelligence gathering and transmitting.

Their general managers, so far as anyone knows, didn’t sanction sign-stealing algorithms developed by low-level interns and ignore the warnings that using them in-game was illegal. Now-former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow thought of that with the Codebreaker algorithm.

Their bench coaches and designated hitters didn’t dream up either an independent high-speed real-time camera or alter an existing delayed camera into illegal real-time transmission to deliver opposing signs to clubhouse monitors next to which a transmission person could signal Astro batters by banging the trash can, slowly or otherwise. Then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora and DH Carlos Beltran did. (Smile—you’re on Candid Camera!)

“These are different things. Very, very different things,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the Yankeegate letter was obtained by SNY.

Players have been trying to steal and relay signs from second base forever. That doesn’t excuse the Yankees and Red Sox, but context matters. Relaying pitches with such specificity as the Astros did was entirely new.

Now, if MLB comes down harder on the Yankees or Red Sox in 2017, does that change things? Perhaps. Maybe the Astros are scared straight. But let’s remember: Manfred warned the Red Sox in 2017 after using the Apple Watch. And they won the World Series in 2018 while cheating . . .

Using technology to steal signs was rampant in baseball. The Yankees, Red Sox and Astros — and others whose indiscretions have not been proven publicly — did it. It’s simply facile to treat them as the same. It’s factual to say that there are different levels of cheating.

The one true revelation in the Yankeegate letter is that commissioner Rob Manfred actually fined the Yankees $100,000 after they were caught using their dugout phone in September 2017. Seriously?

They spent two years and who knows how much money in legal costs to try to suppress . . . that their mere replay room reconnaissance ring of 2017-18 wasn’t even half the Astro Intelligence Agency and cost them in the end slightly less than half what they pay pitcher Gerrit Cole per day?

The Yankees feared “significant and reputational harm” if the letter was made public. That fear may have been well founded. But not for the reasons the Bronx Boneheads thought.

What the Yankeegate letter won’t do

Affirming the 2017 Yankees as cheaters won’t exonerate or excuse that year’s Astros or the next year’s Red Sox.

Remember the somewhat infamous admonitory letter from commissioner Rob Manfred to Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, regarding proof that the Yankees were up to some 2017 electronic sign-stealing of their own? The letter the Yankees have fought to suppress with the same ardor as they exercise trying to break a decade-plus World Series ring drought?

The Yankeegate letter’s going to come forth in a fortnight, ESPN says. We’re going to learn at last whether Manfred told the whole story of any such Yankee panky or, if he did, just what it actually involved, other than the once-infamous dugout phone/Apple watch slap on the wrist. It only took two years from the day federal judge Jed S. Rakoff ordered the letter unsealed and disclosed to the public with minimal redaction.

Maybe it was only the dugout phone and/or the Apple watch. Maybe it included the Yankees trying to get cute using a television broadcast camera/monitor for a little extracurricular intelligence gathering. Maybe it included the Yankees operating a replay-room reconnaissance ring similar to that known to have been run by Red Sox players in 2018. Maybe.

The bad news, at least for the DraftKings fantasy baseball group, is that releasing the Yankeegate letter won’t reinstate their $5 million lawsuit over Astrogate and Soxgate and aimed at both those clubs plus MLB itself. The worse news is that, whatever is or isn’t in the Yankeegate letter, it won’t take the 2017-18 Astros especially, or the 2018 Red Sox as well, off the hook.

Memory summons back that some around the Astros—and no few of their fans—believed to their souls that high-tech sign-stealing was prevalent enough that they would have been left in the dust if they didn’t think about a little such subterfuge themselves. Mostly, it involved replay-room reconnaissance. The Red Sox got bagged for it over 2018, but few pretended they were the only team with that kind of spymanship.

The Rogue Sox and their fellow replay-room spies, whomever they were, still required a little of the old-fashioned gamesmanship technique: their pilfered intelligence was useless unless there was a man on base to receive it and thus signal it to the man at the plate. That doesn’t justify, either. Sign-stealing from the basepaths or the coaching lines is one thing. Picking it off replay monitors is something else entirely.

But those rooms were provided by MLB itself, to the home and visiting teams in each ballpark. Expecting them to be there without one or another team giving in to the sign-stealing temptation was (I repeat, yet again) something like Mom and Dad making off for a weekend getaway without the kids and leaving the liquor cabinet keys behind.

The 2017-18 Astros took it quite a few bridges farther. For one thing, a front office intern created a sign-stealing algorithm (Codebreaker) that he warned was legal to use before and after games but not during games, a warning then-general manager Jeff Luhnow pooh-poohed while fostering a since-exposed organisational culture in which, to be polite, human decency, never mind honest competition, was seen as an encumbrance.

For another thing, there was that little matter of either an existing camera altered illegally from its mandatory eight-second transmission delay; or, a second, illegally deployed real-time camera. Either or both of which sent signs to be deciphered from an extracurricular clubhouse monitor and then transmitted to Astro hitters with the infamous trash can bangs.

Nobody with credibility says the replay-room reconnaissance rings were right. And nobody with credibility should ever say those rings made the 2017-18 Astros less guilty. As things turned out, the Astros had such a broad reputation inside baseball for their kind of cheating that their 2019 World Series opponents took themselves to extraordinary lengths to thwart it.

No, the 2019 world champion Nationals didn’t build their own extralegal closed-circuit television spy network. They merely provided every one of their World Series pitchers with five individual sets of signs each to switch up in a split second’s notice, with their catchers provided wrist-band cards featuring every one of those sign sets just in case.

Whataboutism is no defense whether you’re a rogue police officer, a corrupt politician, or an illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheater. The Astros couldn’t just whatabout their Astro Intelligence Agency and get away with it in the public mind. Nor could the Rogue Sox whatabout it when their 2018 edition was exposed for replay-room reconaissance cheaters.

The Yankees won’t be able to whatabout it if the infamous letter shows their 2017 edition to have been replay-room or broadcasting-camera cheaters, either. But we’ll have to wait at least a fortnight before we know at least some the rest of the Yankeegate story.

This is his [bleeping] Hall of Fame

David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez

David Ortiz (left) with an arm around buddy Pedro Martinez after Martinez’s Hall of Fame induction. Martinez returned the favour, being there when Big Papi got the call he was a Hall of Famer on Tuesday evening.

In the end, the big man with the garrulous personality was the boy in the toy store handed carte blanche to help himself. With Hall of Fame Red Sox teammate Pedro Martinez’s arm around him and his cell phone on speaker, David Ortiz got the call he finally suspected would come—but not necessarily on his first try.

The man whose real coming-out party was a mammoth game-winning home run to finish what the Red Sox started improbably enough, in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series, stopping a Yankee sweep and launching the Red Sox to four straight wins, a pennant, and a World Series sweep, was overwhelmed at last.

Before Ortiz was elected, twelve Latino men were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and three who played in the Negro Leagues before the Show colour line was broken were chosen by committees designated to consider Negro Leagues greats. The most recent Era Committee votes elected Tony Oliva and Minnie Miñoso, too.

Ortiz now makes eighteen Latinos in the Hall of Fame and four from the Dominican Republic. His fellow Dominican Hall of Famers are Martinez, Juan Marichal, and Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero told the Cooperstown gathering in 2018 that he was aware his election could open a door for other Dominican-born greats to follow. Big Papi probably gave the door a blast open comparable to any he’d hit in the biggest of his big moments in a Red Sox uniform.

He’s also the first full-time designated hitter to reach the Hall of Fame on his first BBWAA ballot. It took Edgar Martinez ten tries to make it, before he finally and deservedly punctured any longtime bias against full-time DHs. (Frank Thomas didn’t become primarily a DH until the tenth of his nineteen-season career; Harold Baines—the most mistaken Hall pick of the past decade—didn’t get to primarily DH service until his eighth of 22 seasons.)

But if Martinez should have ended up failing and gone to an Era Committee for second and third looks, Ortiz would likely have blown the bias away. It doesn’t denigrate Martinez to say that, between the Hall’s now two fullest-time DHs, Big Papi has a big advantage on the depth and height charts, according to my Real Batting Average metric:

Hall of Fame DH PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
David Ortiz 10,091 4765 1319 209 92 38 .637
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 113 77 89 .609

Among the four Hall of Famers recognised as designated hitters first, the average RBA is the same as Martinez’s. (Baines, in case you were curious, has an RBA 71 points below that average.) Ortiz’s 28 points above the average is topped among the Hall DHs only by Thomas’s +45 points. (Thomas’s RBA: .654.)

David Ortiz

Big Papi’s real coming-out party—the game-winning bomb in Game Four, 2004 ALCS.

It’s not their fault that their teams didn’t deliver unto them as many chances for the big moments that Ortiz’s Red Sox delivered unto him. It’s certainly not fair that we’ll never know how they would have acquitted themselves if they had been. Ortiz’s postseason RBA is sixteen points higher than his regular-season career RBA, and he was even more of a one-man highlight show in the postseason than he was in the regular season, which was often enough and then some.

“It’s a next-level type of thing,” Ortiz said after getting The Call. “You don’t see this every day. You don’t receive this phone call every day . . . I have so many great and wonderful times while I played, but this one, it’s the type of baby that you just want to hold onto it and never let go.”

Just the way those who knew and played with and even against him hold onto and never let go of their encounters with him. Short-time Red Sox teammate and now Cubs manager David Ross is one. Grandpa Rossy will tell you one minute that Ortiz was a mentor who counseled him to hit according to your nature (If you’re a fastball hitter, don’t miss the fastball; if you hit breaking balls, crush the breaking ball) and the next that there might not have been a body big enough to contain his heart.

“The heart was as big as the baseball skills,” Ross says. “He had parties after every playoff win. Everyone was invited. Ownership, his pastor. He’s a special human being. When he stepped out of the dugout, everyone knew he was there to put on a show. Pretty special presence that he brought.”

“He treated everybody with a high level of respect,” says his former Red Sox teammate Gabe Kapler, currently the manager of the National League West-defending Giants. “He was a very normal guy who reached a high level of performance and superstardom that nobody expected . . . A moment was never too big for him. He was never too wound up . . . He was a very in-control man, a very thoughtful man. Very measured. That measured, calm heart rate helped him succeed in those moments.”

Not even when it came time to put an entire city on his back in the immediate wake of the terrorist act the Boston Marathon bombing was in 2013. But I say again: beware the odds that Big Papi won’t be able to resist the temptation to holler from the Cooperstown podium, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame! If he can’t, who could blame him?

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.