BOSTON — It’s never easy in postseason baseball.
With the final swing of the game Sunday night, Alex Bregman sent the ball sailing out toward left field. In any other park in the major leagues, it’s a majestic — but routine — fly ball. At Fenway Park, with the Green Monster looming so close, a brief moment of terror permeated the old ballpark. If the ball landed in the Monster seats, the score would be tied, and Boston’s three-run lead in the ninth shattered with a remarkable two-out rally.
Bregman knew it was short. “I missed it,” he said. “If I got it, it would have been on the street behind Fenway Park.”
Left fielder Andrew Benintendi drifted back to the warning track. “It wasn’t too close,” he said. “Obviously it was really high. I think [the pitch] got in on him a little bit. I was about a step in front of the wall. I knew right away it wasn’t going to be a home run.”
With that, the game was over, Craig Kimbrel had tight-roped his way to the save after giving up a run, and the Boston Red Sox defeated the Houston Astros 7-5 in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The series goes back to Houston tied up and maybe the presumed demise of the 108-win Red Sox was a little premature.
Before the game, manager Alex Cora laughed lightly when asked if this was a must-win game. He wasn’t insulted by the question but was merely reacting to the obvious: It’s not a must-win game until the other team has three wins. The relaxed nature of his answer helps explain in small part why this team won 108 games. They expect to win. Of course they do: They won 108 games!
“We’re going to show up today,” Cora insisted.
Still, down 0-2 heading to Houston would have been a major problem against a team that hasn’t lost two games in a row since August.
“This was a big one,” Benintendi said. “This is probably as close to a must-win, I thought, as it can get, but in the end, it’s not necessarily a must-win.”
Reliever Matt Barnes, who retired all four batters he faced, put it even more succinctly: “We needed to win tonight’s game.”
The Red Sox even won a postseason game started by David Price — a sentence never before written other than in an alternate universe where postseason David Price is a hybrid between Sandy Koufax and Mariano Rivera. Price didn’t get the win, falling one out short of the necessary five innings, but he didn’t get the loss either.
Instead, that went to Gerrit Cole, who gave up two runs in the first inning and three more in the third on Jackie Bradley Jr.’s three-run double off the Green Monster. From the always reliable files of “You Can’t Predict Baseball,” Cole had made 33 starts this season, including his outing against Cleveland in the division series, and hadn’t given up five runs in any of them. His streak of 34 consecutive starts going back to last season without giving up five-plus runs was the third-longest active streak, behind only Aaron Nola (37) and Jacob deGrom (35).
Cole settled down after the 30-pitch third inning to go six, but the two-out, 2-1 fastball to Bradley ended up being the key hit. He wanted it low and away, but it was low and not away enough, and Bradley poked it off the wall in left.
Bradley had been 1-for-17 with the bases loaded in the regular season. In the first inning, he grounded out to second with the bases loaded to end a threat.
Eduardo Perez and Tim Kurkjian discuss the difference Jackie Bradley Jr. made in Game 2 and why he’s better than what his stats say.
“First at-bat, I think it kind of starts back with that, I saw a lot of offspeed pitches with the bases loaded,” Bradley said. “Second at-bat, got started off with a fastball and saw another offspeed pitch and I was in a hitter’s count. So I just wanted to not do too much, see a pitch in the zone that I could handle and got it on the 2-1 count.”
Cole’s explanation for his outing was he found himself too often without “leverage” — too many hitter’s counts as he fell behind, maybe allowing the Red Sox to sit on his fastball. Houston manager A.J. Hinch said he thought Cole was maybe a little too amped up, especially in the first inning.
There’s also this thought: Maybe the offering to Bradley wasn’t that bad of a pitch. It was a 98 mph fastball down in the zone. Bradley had faced 127 pitches of 97-plus mph this season — and this was his only extra-base hit.
A few takeaways now that we have a series:
— The two best teams in baseball haven’t played the most elegant of games, but that often comes with the territory of the postseason. The pitchers take a little longer between pitches, the batters step out of the box more often. In a seven-game series, the stakes on every pitch are potentially monumental. The breaths are, by necessity, a little deeper. More important, you have two lineups capable of grinding through at-bats and making their opponents work hard for every out. Astros hitters had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the majors and the Red Sox had the third lowest. They also ranked second- and third-lowest in swing-and-miss rate. We’re going to continue to see a lot of 3-2 counts as these lineups battle.
— The consensus was that Houston had the big bullpen advantage. I don’t necessarily disagree with that and the Astros certainly have more depth, but I think everyone overlooked that Boston’s stable of right-handed power arms matches up pretty well against Houston’s righty-heavy lineup. The Astros hit .275/.344/.459 against lefties, but a less impressive .246/.323/.410 against righties. Check out the numbers of Boston’s top relievers against right-handed batters (including the postseason):
All four can crank it up into the upper 90s. Those four give the Red Sox a chance. Plus, kudos to Cora for again using Rick Porcello in the eighth inning, as he did in Game 1 of the division series against the Yankees. He had a dominant 1-2-3 inning, striking out Marwin Gonzalez and Carlos Correa.
Despite all the concerns about the Boston bullpen, Barnes said there has never been a lack of confidence from the guys actually doing the pitching. “That was completely external,” he said. “We’re confident in what we’re doing. We think we can match up with anybody from top to bottom.”
— Indeed, with the Red Sox turning to their first right-handed starter of the series for Game 3 in Nathan Eovaldi, it will be interesting to see if Hinch gets a couple of more left-handed bats in the lineup. Brian McCann did start one game behind the plate against Cleveland and Tony Kemp started one game at DH.
— Is the Houston lineup really that scary once you get past George Springer, Jose Altuve and Bregman? There’s a reason Bregman has walked six times and been hit by a pitch in the first two games. The Red Sox would rather attack cleanup hitter Yuli Gurriel. With Correa hitting down in the lineup and playing through his back issue, the Houston lineup feels as if it’s missing that big hitter in the four hole (yes, Gurriel homered in Game 1 and Gonzalez hit a big home run off Price).
The Astros remain completely confident. “We’re ready to roll,” Bregman said. “We like where we’re at. I love our at-bats. We had a lot of traffic on the bases.”
Indeed, the Astros have homered in a record 14 consecutive postseason games. They homered five times in the two games at home against Cleveland, and we all remember the onslaught they put up at home in the World Series last year.
So, no, maybe that lineup shouldn’t be underestimated. But, as we also learned in Game 2, don’t underestimate the 108-win team either.