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 Two: The traveling Red Sox delicatessen

J.D. Martinez

Martinez—slicing salami in the top of the first . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Two innings. Two thick slices of beef salami. Never before done in a single postseason game.

If there’s a spicier way for the Red Sox to recover from a tight enough American League Championship Series-opening loss than that, you may need to deploy an archaelogical expedition to exhume it.

Six teams have hit pairs of grand slams in the same postseason series, from the 1956 Yankees (World Series) to the 1977 Dodgers (National League Championship Series), from the 1987 Twins (World Series) to the 1998 Braves (NL division series), from the 2001 Diamondbacks (NLDS) to the 2013 Red Sox (ALCS).

Then came J.D. Martinez in the top of the first and Rafael Devers in the top of the second. Just like that, they powered themselves into postseason history and the Red Sox toward a 9-5 series-evening Game Two win. Even if the Astros managed to scrape, scratch, and then launch themselves out of an embarrassing blowout.

There were those asking before the postseason began whether the Red Sox could handle the team who beat them the most frequently when they met in October. The Rays beat them eleven times over the season’s final 89 games. Well, now. After an opening game shutout, the Red Sox sent the Rays home from the division series with three straight losses.

Then, they asked whether the Red Sox could handle the team that beat them with the most ammunition. The Astros beat them in five out of seven meetings in May and June and outscored them 42-25. Well, now. This ALCS is about to shift to Fenway Park after a set-opening split in Minute Maid Park.

The scoring thus far is 13-10, Red Sox. But don’t fool yourselves. The racket only sounded larger than life in Houston because the Astros elected to keep their home playpen’s roof closed for the most part. In open and cooler Fenway Park, the lack of a roof doesn’t matter. The postseason racket is manna for the Red Sox and anything but for visitors.

Right now, the Red Sox ride momentum they snatched back from the Astros in Game Two even more swiftly than the Astros wrestled it for themselves in Game One.

Things were bad enough for the Astros on Saturday with their starting pitcher Luis Garcia taking the ball on a balky right knee, the leg on which he pushes off the pitching rubber. They got worse when Kyle Schwarber opened Game Two with a double to deep left center, Rafael Devers returned from 0-2 to work a one-out walk, and Alex Verdugo waited a two-out walk to set up the ducks on the pond for Martinez.

Rafael Devers

Devers, slicing salami in the second . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The Red Sox designated hitter brought a string of no hits in his twelve previous plate appearances with men on base. Martinez made up for it with one swing, driving a 1-0 fastball just off the strike zone’s bull’s eye the other way and into the right field seats.

Unaware in the moment about Garcia’s push knee, Martinez knew the pressure was almost entirely on the Houston righthander who looks almost as though he does the rhumba at the rubber before he delivers home. “[The pressure’s] not on me to come through there,” Martinez said postgame.

“It’s the first inning,” he continued. “He has the bases loaded. I’m trying to tell myself that, trying to stay relaxed and just looking for a pitch so I can just put a barrel on it.” Barrel? Martinez put a depth charge into it.

Garcia was probably lucky to get out of the inning on life support by striking Hunter Renfroe out. But after Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi slithered out of his own lesser two-out jam in the bottom of the first, Alex Bregman aboard with a two-out double as Yordan Alvarez flied out to deep center, Garcia wouldn’t be so fortunate in the second.

He walked Kevin Plawecki, Eovaldi’s personal catcher, on four high pitches. Manager Dusty Baker and head trainer Jeremiah Randall visited the mound. The entire Astros infield plus catcher Martín Maldonado surrounded them. Garcia finally admitted his right knee bothered him a good while before Game Two.

Baker lifted him for another righthander, Jake Odorizzi, who might have waited to start Game Four otherwise in the Astro plan. Inadvertently, Baker did the Red Sox what may yet prove the largest favour done the Olde Towne Team this year. Pitchers who relieve by profession get themselves ready swiftly enough when they get the call, even if they’re brought in with all the time they need to heat up when taking over for the wounded Starters don’t.

Being a starter by trade, given all the time he needed to warm up, Odorizzi went through as quick a version of his normal pre-start routine as he could muster in the moment. For him it was quick, but for the Red Sox it meant getting a good, acute, long look at him to determine just what he would or wouldn’t have coming in—and how they could or couldn’t exploit it.

And Odorizzi knew it going in.

“I was caught off guard by it, obviously,” Odorizzi said postgame, referencing the Garcia knee issue. “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew he was healthy coming into the game, so I was caught off guard by it. I think everybody was.

“My typical routine is out the window at that point,” he continued. “I hadn’t even stretched, thrown, anything, so it was going to take me a good while to warm up. I think all things (considered) — I’m sure it felt like forever for y’all — but for me, that was about the fastest I can warm up. Usually it takes me 30-plus minutes. I think I did it in under 15. So not ideal, and it’s not like it’s a fun warmup. You’re sitting there pretty much naked in front of the other team.”

Finally, the game got back underway, and the Red Sox showed how much they appreciate naked models with which to work.

Odorizzi dodged one bullet when Christian Arroyo’s long drive down the left field line banged foul off the box seat rail. But he couldn’t dodge Arroyo finally lining a base hit through the open right side, contravening the Astros’ defensive shift. Schwarber struck out swinging, but Kiké Hernández lofted a fly base hit to left.

This time, the ducks on the pond were set up for Rafael Devers, the Red Sox’s lefthanded hitting third baseman bothered himself by a balky forearm. But the forearm knew how to behave when it mattered the most. Devers pulled a 1-1 cutter that arrived up in the middle and a little inward high down the right field line and just inside and past the foul pole.

That second slice of salami tastes even better than the first. Especially with a little spicy mustard on it.

Xander Bogaerts popped out near first base, Verdugo dropped a jam shot into left for a base hit, but Martinez grounded sharply right back to Odorizzi to stop the Red Sox merry-go-round. But an 8-0 lead in two innings meant the music would play onward and upward.

With Eovaldi pitching a gutsy five and a third innings, Hernández himself cranked the music up a little further with one out in the top of the fourth. He yanked a 2-1, down-and-in  Odorizzi splitter into the Crawford Boxes. It was merely the fifth home run of the postseason for the streaky guy who once couldn’t convince the Dodgers he was worth everyday play.

Kike Hernandez

. . . and, Fox Sports getting cute demonstrating just how well Hernández sees pitches lately . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The infielder-outfielder’s first Red Sox postseason’s success continued so dramatically that Fox Sports couldn’t resist developing a special visual to demonstrate how hitters on a roll are believed to see pitches coming their way—it showed Odorizzi’s splitter blowing up into a beach ball just after leaving his hand, floating up and down toward Hernández’s hitting wheelhouse.

According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, also an in-game Fox analyst, the Red Sox hitters had a pre-game confab reviewing their attack plan against Astro pitching when Schwarber piped up with a plan of his own: “Let’s be like Kike,” the Schwarbinator said. “Spray balls all over the park. Hit ’em on top of the railroad tracks.”

Ask Hernández what turns him from a mere jack-of-all-trades with a little power and a modest career curriculum vitae into a weapon in the postseason lifetime thus far but into Hank Aaron in this postseason—especially after he was wrung out by a battle with COVID from late August through early September—and he’s either stuck for an answer or reduced to boilerplate.

“I don’t know,” he said when Rosenthal asked. “I guess feeling good. The importance of the game is allowing me to stay focused, stay locked in, not think too much about it. I’m just glad I’m able to put good at-bats, get on base, drive myself in to help us win, to get to this position.”

Sure. That oh-so-slight move forward in the batter’s box, especially on the breaking balls Hernández formerly had trouble handling, had nothing that much to do with it. From a lifetime .196 hitter on breakers in the regular season to a .700 hitter with three bombs on breakers this postseason. We’ll buy that not-think-about-it jazz—as soon as we make the last payment on that Antarctican beach club.

The Astros’s five runs seemed almost incidental compared to the Red Sox’s mayhem Saturday afternoon. With two out in the bottom of the fourth, Kyle Tucker drove one bouncing off the left field scoreboard wall to send Yordan Alvarez (walk) home, and Yuli Gurriel lined a two-run single the other way to right.

The next time they scored, in the bottom of the ninth, Gurriel hit a full-count fastball up from Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez into the Crawfords and, one out later, late-game catching insertion Jason Castro hit Hernandez’s 2-1 meatball over the center field fence. Compelling Red Sox manager Alex Cora to bring in Ryan Brasier to fool Jose Altuve into hitting a pitch on the strike zone’s ceiling to deep left for the game-ending out.

“We won the seventh, eighth, and ninth,” Baker said postgame. “But those two innings in the beginning, that’s a tremendous mountain to climb.”

In absolute fairness, the Astros’ pitching issues have proven a bump to the Red Sox’s plate formidability now. Even winning Game One the Astros were forced to get six and two thirds innings from their bullpen after starter Framber Valdez couldn’t get out of the third inning alive. Garcia being salamied on a balky knee meant eight bullpen innings Saturday.

Odorizzi gave the Astros’ proper relief corps a break Saturday, but José Urquidy—who hasn’t pitched since 3 October, and who carries a 4.14 fielding-independent pitching [FIP] rate for the regular season—is now listed to start Game Three. He’s a calculated risk even in Fenway Park, since the Red Sox team OPS was almost thirty points higher against righthanded than lefthanded pitching this year.

It also meant Odorizzi out of any Game Four plan, maybe not even a topic until a Game Six if the set gets there. It may mean Valdez having to start Game Four on short rest. Not to mention that the Astros can’t afford any more short starts—and once-formidable Zack Greinke isn’t exactly stretchable anymore. With his own regular season 4.16 ERA but 4.71 FIP, Greinke may even be a bigger risk now if he has to work past forty pitches.

Losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm muscle strain for the ALCS is hurting a lot more than the Astros bargained for, so far.

Cora bet the ranch that he could get away with a running of the bulls in Game One because Eovaldi would give the pen itself relief on Saturday and leave the manager the option of starting Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez in the first two Fenway games, the order unknown at this writing. Cora won that bet.

It didn’t hurt that the Red Sox opened a traveling delicatessen in Houston Sunday with salami prominently on display, either.