Well, this was not the start the Red Sox were looking for in this postseason. The team was looking to Chris Sale on extra rest — something that had been very good in the past — but he could not get the job done. As he’s faded down the stretch, it’s been the long ball that has killed him. That was the case again today. The Astros are an incredible powerful lineup and they certainly deserve credit for punishing mistake pitches, but the Red Sox needed a big performance from their ace in this game and they didn’t get it. Boston is obviously still focused on 2017 — as well they should be, as one loss is not the end of this series even if it’s a serious dagger — but this should lead to a difference in how they handle Sale next year.
While Sale was the biggest story in this game and really did hurt the team in a huge way, it wasn’t the only story. To me, the most startling part of this game was how John Farrell managed it. I’ll explain in more details below, but to put it simply he was not nearly urgent enough in this game. He gave Sale much too long of a leash, something that can’t happen in a playoff game. Then, with the Red Sox on the ropes but still with plenty of a chance to come back in the game, he went to the wrong reliever. This does not make me feel great about the rest of the series. On top of that, while the Red Sox offense was able to make Justin Verlander work a bunch early and did get a bit going in the early-to-middle innings, the team could use a bit more explosion from the bats moving forward.
This game got off to just about the worst start imaginable for the Red Sox. Looking for a hot start against Verlander, they couldn’t do it in the first. They went down 1-2-3, but it was even worse than your typical 1-2-3 inning. Eduardo Nuñez, who got the surprise start over Hanley Ramirez in this game, hit a ground ball in the second at bat of the game and immediately went to the ground when leaving the box. He re-aggravated his knee injury that caused him to miss the end of the season and ended up having to be carried off the field. Nothing has been announced yet, of course, but it seems almost certain that he’ll be done for the rest of the series.
Things only got worse in the bottom of the first. Sale couldn’t get things going in the first after a strikeout to lead off the game. Alex Bregman came in second and Sale threw a flat slider that Bregman was ready for and smashed into the seats in left field to give Houston a 1-0 lead. Jose Altuve came up next, and he got a fastball up in the zone and took it out of the yard to left-center field. Three batters into the bottom of the first and the Astros were already up by two runs.
The Red Sox were able to start getting a little going against Verlander in the second, though, as his command started to waver just a bit. After a quick first out Boston drew a couple of walks against the Astros ace. Rafael Devers would strike out for the second out of the frame, leaving it up to Sandy Leon. The catcher came through with a weak grounder that snuck into right field. Mitch Moreland did make it home, but Dustin Pedroia was thrown out trying to advance to third base. The original call had that out being recorded before Moreland touched the plate, but that was reversed. The Red Sox got the run, but the inning was over on a terrible baserunning decision by Pedroia.
Sale came back stronger in the next inning, though he did give up a single and the runner did move over to second on a passed ball. Still, it was a scoreless frame, though the southpaw’s pitch count was at 46 already. The Red Sox had a similar third in which they got a two-out double from Ramirez (in the game for Nuñez) but nothing else. The bottom half of the third was the only truly strong one for Sale, who only faced three batters thanks to a strikeout and a big inning-ending double play.
In the fourth, the Red Sox got their offense going again starting with a leadoff double from Mookie Betts and a single from Moreland to put runners on the corners with nobody out. That gave Pedroia a big chance to make up for his baserunning mistake, but instead he popped out for out number one. That brought up Rafael Devers, and after a tough at bat he hit a shallow fly ball to right field. Most runners don’t score there but Betts had the speed to get home and tie the game. After another Leon hit moved Moreland into scoring position, the inning would end with the score still tied at two.
At this point, it was all downhill for the Red Sox. Sale came out in the fourth coming off his best inning and looking to build on that. He wouldn’t. After a leadoff pop out he got Evan Gattis to two strikes but couldn’t put him away, instead allowing a big double. After that, Josh Reddick hit a liner into center field that was originally called a diving catch by Jackie Bradley but was (correctly) changed to a trap. That put two runners on, and after Sale got the second out he made a mistake to Marwin Gonzalez. The Astros super utility man took a fastball over the middle of the plate and rocked it for a two-run double to right field. That was a gut punch.
After the Red Sox went down quickly in the fifth, John Farrell stuck with Sale and had nobody warming behind him. The starter rewarded his manager with two quick strikeouts to start the inning, but then threw an absolute meatball to Altuve who crushed it for his second homer of the day.
Sale would get out of the inning after that, and after another quick inning for the offense against a settling-down Verlander, Farrell once again went back to Sale. This was indefensible. In a three-run game, the Red Sox still had a fine chance and Sale clearly didn’t have it in the game. The playoffs need to be managed more urgently than this. Instead, the starter was left in and he allowed a double and a walk to start the inning. That was enough for Farrell, and instead of bringing in one of his top relievers in this crucial spot, he brought in Joe Kelly. Kelly has been fine this year, but again, the playoffs need to be managed more urgently than this. It should also be mentioned that Yuli Gurriel, Gonzalez and McCann were the next three batters coming up and they all crushed righties this year. It could have gone worse for Kelly, but he did give up a couple of singles that resulted in two runs for the Astros and a commanding 7-2 lead. The Red Sox may not have come back in this game, but they weren’t given much of a shot with Farrell’s managing in that inning.
With the game essentially out of hand at this point, Farrell turned to Austin Maddox in the seventh. He made it through the inning, but not before he gave up yet another home run to Altuve, the potential MVP’s third of the day. There are worse players to be beat by, I suppose. The eighth inning belonged to Rick Porcello for....reasons. I don’t know. Perhaps he wanted a little work before starting a potential Game Four? It was weird, but he shut the Astros down for a 1-2-3 inning. Unfortunately, outside of a mini two-single rally in the eighth, the Red Sox offense never threatened to turn this back into a ball game and dropped Game One.
So, the Red Sox dropped the first game in this series and that looks to be a big blow. As we explained earlier, it’s pretty rare to come back from a 1-0 deficit and win a five-game series. It’s certainly not impossible, though. The good news — well, besides the fact that it was a direct result of poor managing from Farrell — is that the top relievers are all fresh for Game Two. Drew Pomeranz will be starting for the Red Sox, and he’s been a team-saver all year long. Hopefully, that can continue on Friday.