Tomase: Five pivotal plays that cost Red Sox the ALCS originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The series sat on a platter, just waiting to be served to Boston's ravenous fans. Record the final six outs of Game 4 with Garrett Whitlock handing the ball to Nathan Eovaldi, and the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series with a chance to close it out at home.
We know what happened next. Jose Altuve homered, Eovaldi didn't get a borderline strike three call, and down came the floodgates. The Astros started scoring and never stopped, sweeping the final three games of the ALCS and advancing to their third World Series since 2017.
Lose a series like that and it's easy to say the better team won, such was Houston's domination. But it's also an opportunity to examine moments that swung momentum against the Red Sox. Here are five turning points, and Laz Diaz's terrible strike zone isn't one of them.
Game 1: Alex Verdugo gets overanxious
The early games of the series were marked by Red Sox sluggers wearing out Houston's starters, and this became readily apparent in the third inning the opener, when the Red Sox took aim at left-hander Framber Valdez.
Kiké Hernández led off with a homer to tie the game at 1-1, and then the Red Sox went to work. Xander Bogaerts worked a one-out walk and Rafael Devers lined a single to center. Altuve booted J.D. Martinez's double-play grounder to score one run, and Hunter Renfroe doubled to left to score another, the ball infamously ricocheting off the ball boy's stool as Martinez stopped at third.
Still, the Red Sox appeared set to do damage when Alex Verdugo stepped in with runners on second and third and one out. Verdugo may have been the most locked-in Red Sox hitter in terms strike zone recognition all series, walking a team-high five times in six games. And he had already singled off Valdez in this one.
But he picked a bad time to get uncharacteristically overanxious. He swung through an inside fastball for strike one and then appeared to take a fastball off the elbow padding. Rather than challenge, however, Alex Cora let Verdugo hit. Valdez blew another fastball by him off the inside corner before sending him fishing with an 80 mph breaking ball well off the plate. It was easily Verdugo's worst swing of the series. He saw four pitches and zero strikes.
The Astros went to their bullpen to strike out Christian Arroyo, and the Red Sox wouldn't score again until Hernández's leadoff homer in the ninth in a 5-4 loss.
Game 4: Hunter Renfroe's smash
This one started like Games 2 and 3, with the Red Sox leaving a Houston starter shellshocked. In this case, it was veteran Zack Greinke, reduced to throwing 88 mph fastballs and hoping to survive. It only took the Red Sox four batters to erase a 1-0 deficit when Xander Bogaerts launched a two-run homer over everything in left as Greinke slammed his glove in frustration.
They seemed to be following the script when Verdugo reached an on an error and Martinez walked. In stepped Hunter Renfroe, who worked the count to 3-1 before ripping a bullet up the third base line. The ball looked ticketed for the corner and at least another run, but Astros third baseman Alex Bregman snagged it on the backhand and threw to second for the inning-ending force.
Instead of continuing their momentum of Games 2 and 3, when early grand slams helped forge insurmountable leads, the Red Sox were stopped dead in their tracks. They would only score once the rest of the series and Renfroe would never sniff another hit, finishing 1 for 16 with eight strikeouts.
Game 4: Martin Perez provides no relief
Of all of the Cora decisions to question, aligning Whitlock and Eovaldi to protect a 2-1 lead in Game 4 isn't one of them. The former hadn't thrown in three days when Cora summoned him to pitch the seventh and eighth, and it just so happens he didn't have it, allowing loud contact in the seventh before serving up Altuve's homer in the eighth.
Eovaldi allowed a leadoff double in the ninth and appeared to escape the jam when he froze Jason Castro with a two-strike curveball that Diaz missed. Still, Eovaldi had a chance to finish the job, and he instead served up the go-ahead single.
Out came Eovaldi and in came . . . Martin Perez? The left-hander had recorded five outs between Games 1 and 2, but now he was being asked to give the offense a chance to overcome a 3-2 deficit in the ninth. He instead allowed Michael Brantley to launch a three-run double on his first pitch. The next four batters reached, too, as the Astros tacked on six more runs and that was the end of that. The Red Sox lost 9-2.
Cora had dwindling options, since Josh Taylor, Adam Ottavino, and Whitlock had already pitched. He summoned Perez with the left-handed Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, and Kyle Tucker due up. He trusted the veteran, and got burned.
Game 5: Jose Altuve creates havoc
The 9-1 final suggests blowout, but for five innings, the two clubs tensely contested a 1-0 game. Then Altuve led off the sixth with a walk, and all hell broke loose.
The Red Sox had survived the Kyle Schwarber experiment at first base all postseason without major repercussions, but every ground ball remained a cause to hold your breath.
Astros manager Dusty Baker decided to apply some pressure with Brantley batting against Chris Sale. He sent Altuve on the first pitch, which Brantley grounded weakly to third against the shift. Rafael Devers charged and made an accurate throw across the diamond, but with third base briefly uncovered, Altuve popped out of his slide and kept running.
The Red Sox had the play covered -- Xander Bogaerts recognized the open bag and raced to third -- but that moment of aggressiveness caught Schwarber's eye just long enough for him to try to catch and throw simultaneously. He ended up doing neither. Brantley reached on the error, Alvarez doubled to left to chase Sale, and eight runs later the Astros cruised to victory.
Game 6: Boxed out
The Red Sox would be the last team to complain about ballpark quirks, given that they play in a 109-year-old venue with some of the strangest configurations in baseball. But whatever hopes they had in Game 6 were undone by the vagaries of Minute Maid Park's unique Crawford boxes in left field.
Spanning sections 100-104, the reside just 315 feet from home plate atop a 19-foot fence. Sky one down the line, and it's the easiest home run in baseball. To the right of the boxes, however, the field extends another 47 feet straight back. Hitting one out to left-center requires a 362-foot poke and a matter of feet made all the difference in the decisive game.
With one out in the seventh and the Red Sox trailing 1-0, Schwarber drove a low fastball to left, sending Brantley a few feet to the right of the Crawford boxes for a long out instead of a game-tying homer. The next batter, Hernández, ripped one even farther. Had he dead pulled it, it would've been a no-doubter. But he struck high off the wall in left-center for a long triple. He ended up being stranded at third.
The Red Sox still had a chance until the eighth, trailing 2-0, when Kyle Tucker stepped in with two on and two outs against Ottavino. The left-handed hitter saw basically the exacts same pitch as Schwarber -- 95 mph down and over the plate -- and golfed it to left. He took aim at the Crawford boxes, however, sneaking the ball into the corner of the first row. Schwarber watched helplessly as the ball found seats, putting a bow on the game, as well as the series.