EditorsNote: Update 2: Replaces with writethru
HOUSTON — The cumulative effect of so many close calls seemingly favoring their opponent seems to be wearing thin on the Houston Astros. It’s only a game of inches when there is balance in that distribution; when that outlay appears skewed, frustration can manifest.
The Astros witnessed those delicate inches work against them on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The first instance where distance mattered came in the bottom of the first inning; two more unfolded in the eighth and the ninth before the Boston Red Sox sealed their 8-6 victory and secured a commanding 3-1 series lead.
In the bottom of the first, with Boston having already scratched across two runs off right-hander Charlie Morton, who recorded just seven outs in his first start since Sept. 30, the Astros fashioned what seemed a hasty response against Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello.
With a runner on first and one out, Jose Altuve drilled a deep fly ball to right field, and Boston’s Mookie Betts made a leaping stab for it at the wall.
Betts’ glove, the baseball and a collection of hands attached to eager fans met simultaneously, and right field umpire Joe West ruled fan interference, robbing Altuve of a game-tying, two-run home run.
Despite what looked to be clear evidence that Betts reached into the stands on his attempt, a replay review upheld the initial call on the field, and Porcello escaped the inning unscathed.
“When I hit the ball, I was expecting to tie the game. I thought I did,” Altuve said. “They called an out. It’s tough. That was two runs in the first inning that would have helped us a bit more.”
Ultimately, the Astros clawed back from a 3-1 deficit via solo home runs from George Springer in the third inning and Tony Kemp in the fourth, both off Porcello. Carlos Correa produced two RBI singles, the second of which came against the Red Sox’s Joe Kelly (1-1), drove in Yuli Gurriel and lifted the Astros to a 5-4 lead in the fifth. That advantage was short-lived.
Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. struck the decisive blow for a third consecutive game, smacking a first-pitch changeup from Astros right-hander Josh James (0-1) into the right field seats with two outs in the sixth inning to swing the pendulum back toward the Red Sox.
James had limited Boston to one run after entering in relief of Morton in the third inning. However, after recording two quick outs in the sixth, he surrendered a double to Christian Vazquez before Bradley pounced on James’ off-speed offering. The flame-throwing James averaged 99.4 mph over 23 fastballs.
Bradley supplied the Red Sox a 6-5 lead with his two-run shot, his second home run in as many games and third game-altering extra-base hit in the series. He slugged an eighth-inning grand slam in Boston’s 8-2 Game 3 win and hit a third-inning, three-run double in the Red Sox’s 7-5 Game 2 victory.
“I’m very proud of him,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of Bradley. “What he’s done in the second part of the season and what he’s done tonight and in this series, it’s amazing. He keeps working on his craft, his swing. He understands now, he’s staying through the ball, hitting the ball in the air. There’s no more hitting line drives into the shift. Now he hits the ball in the air.”
When the Astros refused to wilt, despite Boston extending to an 8-5 lead in the eighth, the Red Sox turned to their sparkling outfield defense.
Kemp attempted to stretch a leadoff single into a double in the eighth, and Betts barely threw him out, a key out considering the Astros scored later that frame against Boston closer Craig Kimbrel.
When Houston loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth, Kimbrel surrendered a first-pitch, sinking line drive to Alex Bregman. Andrew Benintendi snagged it with a game-saving, diving catch in left field.
“We take all the pride in the world,” Betts said of the outfield defense. “It wins games like it did today. It’s just one of those things where it just takes effort. We’re all athletes that give effort.”
Favorable close calls aside, the Red Sox are on the cusp of their first AL pennant since 2013 because of their offensive attack. The Astros allowed the fewest runs (534) of any AL staff in a non-strike season since the designated hitter was instituted in 1973. The Red Sox have laid waste to that pitching, scoring 23 runs — 16 via two-out RBIs — over Games 2-4.
“Their offense is relentless,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s been relentless since March since we first saw them in spring training. Getting through them, getting through the at-bats, you watch them hang in there. They draw walks when you shy away from the zone. They get two-out hits. They’re a full offense to deal with on a nightly basis. That’s what’s going on.”
—MoiseKapenda Bower, Field Level Media