This was a very strange game that pitted two aces against each other. It somehow managed to be a low-scoring affair without featuring really any dominant pitching from either side. The Red Sox in particular have to feel fortunate that they didn’t allow more runs, though that’s no consolation since they still came out on the losing end of this game. Chris Sale didn’t look at all like himself, as his velocity was back down to September levels and his slider command totally disappeared for long stretches of this game. He limited damage despite all this, and was killed by poor defense from Eduardo Núñez — which led to multiple runs, by the way, and if any one thing should be most blamed for this game his presence would certainly have a strong argument — but he was not good. After him, Boston’s relievers continued to issue walk after walk before somehow escaping time after time. The Red Sox offense, meanwhile, had a couple of chances for big innings against Justin Verlander but they had to settle in each of them. Mix in some really bad umpiring and an ejection for Alex Cora, and this was a bizarre start to this series. Unfortunately, it didn’t go Boston’s way.
The narrative coming into this game was clear, even beyond the fact that it was Game One of the ALCS in one of the most talent-laden postseason matchups in recent memory. For this game specifically, the story coming in was all about the pitching. In a season and playoffs all about bullpenning and workload management, this game pitted two old-school, workhorse aces against each other with Justin Verlander and Chris Sale. There was the potential for some special pitching in this game, with two of the rare pitchers in the 2018 postseason with the potential to go the distance if they are pitching well enough.
For Verlanders part, he played the role. The Astros righty has been on this stage many before, and while last year was the first time he came away with a ring he’s long been money in October. That continued in spades in this game, and it was really a classic Verlander outing. He was using all of his pitches well, but the fastball in particular was just so impressive. Despite being 35 years old now, he’s still pumping mid-to-high 90s, and if anything he gains velocity as his nights go on.
Anyway, the Red Sox didn’t get a whole lot going against the Astros ace, though they did seem to have an early chance in the bottom half of the first. With the game still knotted up at zeros, they had a chance to get out to an early lead when Mookie Betts ripped a leadoff single then got to second with one out on a wild pitch. With J.D. Martinez at the plate, they had a chance. The slugger drew a walk to put two on with one out for Xander Bogaerts, who has come through so many times with runners in scoring position this year. That wasn’t the case this time around, though. After letting a middle-middle fastball go by on the first pitch, he got another one on the second offering of the at bat. Unfortunately, he missed it and turned it into an easy, inning-ending double play.
As it turned out, and it was pretty predictable at the time if we’re being honest, not taking advantage of that opportunity against Verlander proved costly. The righty mowed through the bottom of the order after that, and then continued that momentum in his second trip through the heart of Boston’s lineup. After that first inning, the Astros ace retired the next nine Red Sox batters he faced.
Meanwhile, Chris Sale was not close to the same level as Verlander. Of course, heading into Sale’s ALDS outing against the Yankees, his velocity was the number one concern for most. He came out and was sitting in the 93-95 range, which is more than fine. He looked good again out of the bullpen in Game 4 of that series, and those concerns had faded. Well, they returned in a big way for this outing. Not only was his velocity down — he was sitting 89-91 for the majority of this outing — but he also couldn’t command his slider. He can tentatively get away with the lowered velocity if he can locate the slider, but for too long in this game, nothing was working.
Really, it was pretty clear right away that something wasn’t right here, and Sale just couldn’t put George Springer away. Eventually, the Astros leadoff man would work a walk, but then the Sox caught some breaks. Jose Altuve grounded into a fielder’s choice, then Alex Bregman hit a little bloop to right field. Betts couldn’t quite come in to make the catch, but Altuve was caught in no-man’s land. Although Betts’ throw to get him at second base was off the mark, Bogaerts made a great play to pick a ball in the dirt while barely staying on the bag for the second out of the inning. Sale then came back with his first strikeout of the night, and it was a scoreless frame.
The second inning was where the real trouble for Sale began. He actually looked like he might be able to come back with a quick inning, starting with two quick outs including a strikeout. It was at that point he lost control, though. He’d walk Carlos Correa, then hit Martin Maldonado before walking Josh Reddick, and suddenly the bases were loaded for the top of the lineup. It was absolutely disastrous. He finally got some strikes to Springer, but the Astros outfielder ripped one that got through the right side to score two runs. Eduardo Núñez, who got the start at third, probably should have at least knocked it down and limited it to one run, and he deserves criticism here. Really, though, these runs were first and foremost on Sale for walking the entire bottom third of the lineup. He did escape after that.
Sale still didn’t look great following that second inning, though he was able to limit any more damage and actually end up with a better line that it appeared he’d be able to, though it still didn’t come close to pregame hopes. In the third inning he did issue a leadoff walk to Alex Bregman, but the Astros helped bail him out with an ill-advised stolen base attempt that ultimately helped Sale face only three batters in the inning. He’d come back with a 1-2-3 fourth that included two strikeouts to end his day.
After that, Joe Kelly entered the game looking for a big performance out of relief similar to the one he provided in Game 2 of the ALDS after David Price’s early exit. He did just that in the fifth inning, coming in against the 9-1-2 hitters in Houston’s lineup and shutting them down in order.
Then, in the bottom of the fifth, Verlander started to finally show some signs of vulnerability. Steve Pearce came up to lead off the inning, and he ripped a base hit through the left side. After a strike out to Brock Holt, the righty issued walks to both Núñez and Jackie Bradley Jr., and the bases were loaded. That brought Mitch Moreland up to pinch hit for Sandy León, and he drew yet another walk. Just like that, the Astros lead was cut in half. Mookie Betts then had a huge chance with the bases loaded and one out, but he missed it. The likely MVP got a perfect pitch middle-in, but he rolled it over to third base, leading to a put out at the plate. That left it up to Benintendi, but Verlander took it out of his hands. With two strikes, the ace threw a curveball in the dirt that led Bradley come in to score, and it was a tie game.
Benintendi ended up striking out shortly after that to end the inning on a controversial strike call on the outside corner. To me, it looked borderline enough to let go, but Red Sox hitters had been frustrated by the outside corner all night and frustrations boiled here. Benintendi had to be stopped by coaches, and Alex Cora was eventually ejected between innings.
So, with the score tied and the Red Sox down a manager, we headed to the sixth with Joe Kelly coming back up. He started things off by hitting Bregman, but then he appeared to get a tailor-made double play ball. Instead, Núñez dropped an easy chopper, and the Astros had their first two runners on. Kelly looked like he was ready to get out of it, but with two outs Carlos Correa hit a soft liner that fell into left-center field to give Houston their lead back. Matt Barnes then came in and got out of it on one pitch.
Despite his control issues in his previous inning, Verlander came back out for the sixth, and he dominated with an easy 1-2-3 inning. Suddenly, Boston only had nine outs remaining to at least tie the game.
After Barnes worked around a pair of walks in the top of the seventh, Ryan Pressly came on to pitch for the Astros. Boston did get one runner to reach on an error, but that was it.
Ryan Brasier allowed a couple more baserunners on a hit batter and a walk, but he pitched a scoreless eighth. Lance McCullers came on for the bottom half for the Astros, and he tossed a 1-2-3 inning.
Brandon Workman came on for Boston in the ninth, and he made a mistake right away. The righty left a pitch middle-middle to Josh Reddick, and the former Red Sox outfielder blasted one way out to right field for a solo shot to give Houston a two-run lead. Workman then allowed two walks before Yuli Gurriel sliced one into the right-field seats, and that was the dagger. With a 7-2 lead, Houston now commanded this game. The Red Sox managed just a single in the ninth, and mercifully this game was over.
So, the Red Sox are down early in this series and on Sunday will be looking to avoid a 2-0 deficit before heading out to Texas for the middle of this series. They’ll have David Price on the mound to take on Gerrit Cole, with first pitch coming at 7:09 PM ET.