Perhaps a dinosaur could have rampaged through the dugout. Or maybe a hole could have opened under the clubhouse, through which the undead returned to earth to eat brains, slough skin, and generally wreak havoc. Or maybe something involving a pack of shin-biting badgers. Short of something like that, it’s difficult to concoct a worse scenario for the Red Sox than what actually happened in Game One of the ALDS against the Houston Astros. Sure, there were no rips in the space-time continuum, and nobody was eaten (that we know of), but the Red Sox’s chances of winning this series did seem to implode in upon itself like a badly played game of Jenga shortly after the announcer boomed “Play ball!” over the intercom.
First there was the almost immediate injury to Eduardo Nunez who, it seems, has had his last plate appearance as a member of the Boston Red Sox. After hitting a ground ball his leg gave out on him and he collapsed half way up the first base line. He had to be carried off the field. It was sad and dispiriting to watch. Then the Astros started hitting homers. That was also sad and dispiriting to watch. The Red Sox came back and tied the game, but never got a lead, and soon after Sale gave the lead back and then the back of the bullpen got involved and that’s about where you realized there was hockey or football on.
When watching a performance like that where one team completely outclasses the other, you would be forgiven for assuming the series is over after one game. It isn’t, it only feels that way. But some things are going to have to change and change quickly for us to reach the end of this series with anything but a Houston sweep.
Go back in time before Thursday’s game. If the Astros are to be beaten by this year’s Red Sox, we say to each other before the first pitch of Game One, several things have to go the Red Sox way. First, Boston’s bullpen, a stronger one than Houston possesses, needs to play a prominent role. The more innings thrown by David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Addison Reed, and maybe/probably Carson Smith, the better Boston’s chances to win. To that end, Boston’s manager, John Farrell, needs to be quick on the trigger. When a pitcher shows any signs of tiring or of simply not having it that day, Farrell needs to make a change. There is no time for starters to work through something. Farrell needs to be quick and proactive to stop potential damage from happening on the field. Further, the Red Sox will need some hitter(s) to take charge. Maybe Mookie can find that power stroke. Maybe Moreland gets silly hot. Maybe Hanley’s shoulder magically heals. Doesn’t matter who. It only matters if. So those are the three things: the pen, Farrell, and Boston’s hitters, and they all need to happen because the Astros are a better team.
So, how did all that work in the first game? First, Chris Sale didn’t have it. That was clear after the first inning when he gave up two solo homers. It was even clearer when he gave up two more runs in the fourth inning on three hard hit balls. Farrell’s response was to stick with Sale in the fifth. Sale came out in the fifth and gave up a third solo homer. It was now 5-2 and yet, after the Sox went down 1-2-3, there was Sale out on the mound again in the sixth inning. Farrell failed to understand the gravity of the moment and stuck with his ace in the fifth and it cost him a run. Then he did it again in the sixth, and it cost him two more runs. As it turned out, he didn’t have that many runs to give away.
When Farrell finally came to get Sale with two runners on and no outs in the sixth, it was well past too late. The Astros’ chances of winning were already over 90 percent. But then Farrell proved he still didn’t grasp the importance of what was left of the game by bringing in Joe Kelly. Kelly promptly gave up a single, struck out Marwin Gonzalez on a beautiful full-count changeup, then gave up a two-run single to Brian McCann and that was, for all intents and purposes, the ballgame. Kelly was a bad choice because, despite the 100 mph fastball, he isn’t a strikeout pitcher. He’s not really any kind of pitcher, truthfully, but especially not a strikeout pitcher who could get the team out of that inning without any further damage and preserve whatever was left of the Red Sox’ chances. That was a prime spot for David Price, or, if Price wasn’t ready yet, Addison Reed followed by Price. The Red Sox needed to exit that inning without making things worse and Kelly was a poor choice as a tool to reach that outcome. The fact that he failed only underscored the poor choice Farrell made.
There should be more power in that group and in the larger roster. But this season, right now, there isn’t. And against what looked like a pretty hittable Justin Verlander, the Red Sox came up small.
Then there was the Red Sox offense. This is the team we’ve been watching all season long so it should come as no surprise that they walked a bit and singled up a storm, but the extra base hits were few and far between. While the Astros were hitting the ball into and over the wall, the Red Sox were rounding first, clapping, and jogging back to hope for three more so they could score. I’m still not sure if this is some sort of systemic problem, or if it’s just a bad season in the power department. It’s been well-catalogued that just about every important hitter took a step back (and often more than that) in the power department. Given the ages of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, and their pedigrees, there should be more power in that group and in the larger roster. But this season, right now, there isn’t. And against what looked like a pretty hittable Justin Verlander, the Red Sox came up small.
When compared with the swing-from-their-heels Astros, who hit 97 mph fastballs over the wall when they were a few inches away from where they were supposed to go, Verlander’s high sliders looked tantalizingly hittable. But they weren’t hit. In the end, we are left with what one playoff game always leaves us with: one game’s worth of data. The Astros are an excellent hitting team, one of the greatest hitting teams we’ve seen in a long time. That’s what we saw today. But even the Astros don’t average eight runs and four homers a game. So part of this is on the Astros greatness, but part is on the Red Sox lack of greatness, or at least lack of greatness for the day, anyway.
If the Red Sox are to win this series (or any of the games in it), John Farrell has to get far more aggressive with his bullpen, one of the few advantages Boston has in this series. If he waits until the game is mostly out of hand before using it, then the series is likely lost, short of the Red Sox offense shaking off a season’s worth of malaise and hitting like 2016 again. But in the end, John Farrell is John Farrell and David Ortiz isn’t walking through that clubhouse door. So maybe, in the end, it didn’t matter so much whether flesh-eating pandas tore down the clubhouse door prior to first pitch because, unless things change, this series was lost before it began.
Photo by Troy Taormina – USA TODAY Sports