They needed that one. Well, they didn’t need that one — you don’t need any given game in early June — but it sort of felt like they needed it. They didn’t want to drop the first three in this series against Houston, and for a while it looked like they would. Justin Verlander out-dueled David Price for most of this game, and the Red Sox waited until the bullpen came in to take the lead thanks to clutch homers from Christian Vazquez and Andrew Benintendi. It was never a breeze, but it was a win, and that’s all that matters.
On the one hand, Verlander is super good. Like, amazing. He’s currently in the midst of an almost unbelievable resurgence on the mound in which he has been the best pitcher in baseball through the first two months of the season, and the Red Sox are far from the only team to look bad against the veteran righty. There ain’t no shame in getting beat by the best. Well, at least theoretically there ain’t no shame. Of course, after dropping the first two games of this series and then coming out and not being able to do anything at the plate while your starting pitcher is doing pretty well against a great lineup...well, that’s a shame. It was particularly frustrating because the Red Sox didn’t really feel like they were being dominated. They got to Verlander early, and then they continued to make him work through most of his start and made some solid contact that just found gloves. Despite all that, it felt like they just had to wait for him to leave the game more than anything.
As I said, the Red Sox did get off to a good start against the Astros ace and actually took an early lead in this game. Between this series and last year’s ALDS against Houston, early leads in this matchup have been hard to come by. Here, Andrew Benintendi kicked off the game by drawing a walk against Verlander, and after the first out was recorded he moved on over to second on a wild pitch. That turned out to be a big play, because just a few pitches later J.D. Martinez added to his league-leading RBI total by putting a ball through the right side for a single to put the Red Sox up 1-0. It was all they’d get in that inning, and as it turned out it was all they’d get for a while.
After Martinez knocked in the first run of the game, Verlander started to roll and retired the next ten batters he faced. As I said, however, it wasn’t pure domination or anything like that. The second inning was a 20-pitch frame with half of those coming from a great at bat from Christian Vazquez. The third inning included a smoked line drive from Jackie Bradley Jr. that was right at the center fielder and a fly ball from Andrew Benintendi that almost knocked off the wall in front of the Crawfish Boxes in left field but was nabbed by Marwin Gonzalez on an impressive leaping grab.
The next couple of innings started to turn into more of a breeze for Verlander, however. The Red Sox did get a two-out single from Eduardo Núñez for their first baserunner since the Martinez RBI single, but he wouldn’t advance beyond first base. Then, the Astros righty had his first truly easy inning of the day in the fifth when he set the Sox down in order on just nine pitches.
Meanwhile, Price was coming out to prove that his previous few outings weren’t just the result of playing non-playoff teams. His command had been great of late and that has allowed him to largely dominate over his last few starts despite relying almost exclusively on fastballs and cutters. The southpaw didn’t totally control the Astros, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but he certainly held his own and really only let the tough part of their lineup get to him once. It was a performance that was good enough for a win as he certainly kept Boston in the game throughout.
In the first, it did look like it could be another special day for Price as his command was absolutely perfect against the intimidating top of Houston’s lineup. He allowed just a single in a first inning that included a pair of strikeouts. In the second, things got a little bit worse. Yuli Gurriel led off the inning with a single and was able to move over to second on a strikeout. With a runner in scoring position Gonzalez came to the plate and Price threw what was likely his worst pitch of the day. He left a fastball right down the heart of the plate and Gonzalez smashed it out off the wall in left-center field for a stand-up triple that tied the game at one. Price would strand the runner 90 feet from home, but the damage was done and that was important given Verlander settling in in a big way.
The third was the time when the top of Houston’s lineup was able to get to Price, which was frustrating but also bound to happen at least once in every game. This time around, George Springer led off the inning with a single, bringing up Alex Bregman with a runner on and nobody out. Price made another mistake here, trying to bury a cutter in on Bregman’s hands. Instead, he caught a little too much of the plate and the Astros third baseman turned around on it, smoking it out to left field for a no-doubt two-run home run. All of a sudden, it was a 3-1 lead.
Fortunately, Price did settle in from there. He allowed one more baserunner in that third inning before coming out and setting the side down in order in both the fourth and fifth innings.
That brought the Red Sox up for the sixth with Verlander approaching the 90-pitch mark and the top of their order coming up. If they were going to get some momentum back, this was going to be the time. Sure enough, it worked out even if it wasn’t to the extent they had hoped. Xander Bogaerts worked an impressive walk with one out, then moved over to second on a stolen base. Once again, getting into scoring position ahead of Martinez paid off as the Red Sox RBI machine smacked another single into right field, knocking in both his and Boston’s second run of the game. The lead was down to one, and Martinez quickly stole second base to put the tying run in scoring position. Unfortunately, Mitch Moreland ripped a line drive right at Jose Altuve and Núñez struck out in a hideous at bat to end the scoring threat with the 3-2 deficit still in hand.
With 94 pitches under his belt, Price came back out hoping to hold that deficit to one run. He did just that, setting the side down in order to finish his night with a bang. In all, he allowed the three runs over six innings of work on five hits and a walk with seven strikeouts.
In the seventh, Verlander was out of the game and the Red Sox were looking to get going against Will Harris and the Astros bullpen. After a couple of quick outs, Vazquez came to the plate and had his biggest swing of the year. Harris threw a cutter right down the heart of the plate, and the Red Sox catcher demolished it for a solo shot, tying the game with one of his patented clutch dingers. Things kept going with a Bradley walk, bringing Benintendi to the plate. He got a two-strike fastball up in the zone and he crushed one out to right field to put Boston up two and knock Harris out of the game.
That was all they’d get in the seventh, but the damage was done and the Sox all of a sudden had a two-run lead to protect for three innings. Heath Hembree got the first call for the seventh, and while he walked the number nine hitter he worked around that with a big inning-ending strikeout against George Springer.
The eighth belonged to Joe Kelly, and it was the biggest inning of the game. Houston was sending up the heart of their order, with Bregman, Altuve and Correa due up. I would have went with Craig Kimbrel, but Cora held him for the ninth. Things got shaky. Altuve drew a one-out walk, then moved on over to second with a stolen base on a play where Núñez inexplicably came up to catch the ball a few steps in front of the bag. If he had hung back, he very well may have gotten the out. Instead, Altuve was on second and moved over to third with two outs for Yuli Gurriel. The Astros first baseman smacked one to the right side that just got by Moreland to cut Boston’s lead down to one. Kelly would escape after that by inducing a pop up.
So, the Red Sox failed to score in the ninth and it the one-run lead was there for Craig Kimbrel to protect. He was up against the bottom of the order, and he got through with an easy 1-2-3 inning that included a pair of strikeouts, locking up the Red Sox victory.
So, the Red Sox will have a chance to salvage a split in this series on Sunday night for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball game. Boston will send out Rick Porcello to take on Charlie Morton, with first pitch coming at 7:30 PM ET.