This is what the Houston Astros do. As much as they peacock about the field, flaring their tail feathers for all to see, they are, at heart, a 25-man gauntlet – a taxing, exasperating, withering test that even the best can’t pass. Over 4 hours, 3 minutes of slogging baseball Saturday night, the Astros waited, waited, waited, and then they pounced. The Red Sox teetered, teetered, teetered, and then they capsized.
Game 1 of the American League Championship Series re-introduced the Boston Red Soxto this harsh reality through which they’d lived a year ago, when the Astros dismissed them from the postseason. The game was close, closer than it deserved to be, and then it wasn’t. Because just like that, every aspect of the Astros’ excellence – hitting, fielding and pitching – can activate, and when it does, there is no better team in the world, not even the 108-win Red Sox.
Half of Fenway Park had emptied by the time its scoreboard spelled out the final: Astros 7, Red Sox 2. It was the same score as Game 1 of the Astros’ Division Series, in which they ran roughshod over the Cleveland Indians, and it mimicked that victory in other ways: With their metronome, Justin Verlander, solid if unspectacular, and their lineup so burdensome that one of the game’s finest pitchers can’t even make it through five innings. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber was the first casualty, Chris Sale the Saturday-night version. They got Astro’d, though there’s no shame in that.
“One thing about our team,” Verlander said, “is it’s nonstop.”
That is about as concise and apropos a way to describe the Astros as possible. They won the World Series last year, and this season they are distinctly, demonstrably better, with a bullpen to match their domineering rotation, elite gloves to hoover whatever balls do get put in play and bats that hunt weakness in predatory fashion. When Sale came out in the first inning with a fastball 4 mph slower than his last start, Houston resolved to grind him to a nub, and by the time the fifth inning arrived, he was done. Even though the Astros tagged him for only one hit and two runs, they had forced Red Sox manager Alex Cora to pick up the bullpen phone far earlier than he hoped and call upon a relief corps whose bend-but-don’t-break plasticity hardened and eventually shattered.
During their 103-win regular season, the Astros didn’t typically win in this manner. They averaged 3.85 pitches per plate appearance, good for 23rd in the major leagues. In Game 1, with a limited Sale and a bullpen that might as well be nicknamed the rat pack for how much it nibbled, Houston saw 188 pitches – 4.37 per plate appearance. The Astros are the best kind of amorphous. They punish aggressive strike throwers by swinging early in the count just as easily as they let those wild or scared – or both – unsheathe a weapon and bury a bullet or two in their own feet.
The largest caliber came in the sixth inning, right after a wild Verlander allowed Boston to tie the game at 2 with three walks and a wild pitch. Red Sox manager Alex Cora was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Joe Kelly hit Alex Bregman with a 100-mph fastball to start the inning, and Eduardo Núñez turned a shoulda-been double-play ball into an error and two runners on. With two outs, shortstop Carlos Correa feathered a ball into left field to score what wound up the winning run.
Houston piled on, because that’s how the Astros operate. They threatened the next two Red Sox relievers without tallying a run. To start the ninth, Josh Reddick greeted the second pitch of Brandon Workman’s night by launching it 419 feet into right-center field. Workman walked Jose Altuve, walked Bregman and left a 90-mph fastball over the center of the plate for Yuli Gurriel to wrap around the Pesky Pole in right field. Just like that, the Astros turned 3-2 into 7-2, and all Cora could do was watch from his office and lament his home-field advantage fading as though Thanos had snapped his fingers.