EditorsNote: write-thru with quotes and details
HOUSTON — Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. spoke with an earnestness that belied his influence on the American League Championship Series, a sincerity that did not fully reflect the potency of his bat or the damage he wrought in helping dethrone the defending champions.
Even a hitless Game 5 could not diminish his impact. It was Bradley who slugged Boston to three consecutive wins prior to Thursday. It was Bradley who set the table for J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and David Price to put the finishing touches on the Houston Astros with a 4-1 victory at Minute Maid Park and 4-1 series win that clinched the Red Sox’s 14th pennant.
The Red Sox will host the National League champion, either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Milwaukee Brewers, in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Fenway Park. Bradley, the ALCS Most Valuable Player after producing three extra-base hits and nine two-out RBIs to spearhead wins in Games 2-4, will remain integral to their title hopes.
“Speechless,” Bradley said. “It’s amazing. I have amazing teammates, amazing staff. Everybody’s such a blessing.
“This is what we set out to do when we come to spring training. And we battled — we’ve been battle-tested, played against a lot of great ball teams. This is definitely a special moment.”
The Astros were such a team, looking for a second consecutive World Series title after posting a franchise-record 103 wins during the season and unceremoniously dispatching the Cleveland Indians in a one-sided sweep of the AL Division Series.
Houston rallied in the latter innings to claim victory in Game 1 of the ALCS at Boston and led 4-2 in the third inning of Game 2 before Bradley delivered a three-run double off Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole and a seismic shift in series momentum. Once ignited, the Red Sox attack did not relent.
Bradley slugged a grand slam in a five-run eighth inning in Game 3 before drilling a two-run, sixth-inning homer that gave the Red Sox the lead for good in Game 4.
In Game 5, the Astros deployed ace right-hander Justin Verlander (1-1) to keep their postseason aspirations afloat, but Martinez blasted a 1-2 curveball with one out in the third inning for a 1-0 Red Sox lead.
Verlander had logged 26 consecutive scoreless innings in elimination games for the Astros and Detroit Tigers, going 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA in those starts. The Red Sox were undaunted, and when Devers followed hits by Mitch Moreland (leadoff double) and Ian Kinsler (opposite-field single to right) with a first-pitch, three-run shot in the sixth, Boston led 4-0 and was on its way.
Price (1-0), universally maligned because of his 0-9 record and 6.16 ERA over 11 career postseason starts, was brilliant in his second appearance of the series.
The lefty worked around a two-out single by Jose Altuve in the first inning and a leadoff single from Yuli Gurriel in the second. Price retired eight consecutive batters after Gurriel reached safely, and he recovered to strike out Marwin Gonzalez with a 2-2 changeup after Gurriel doubled with two outs in the fourth.
Price then retired the Astros in order in the fifth and sixth to complete his night. He surrendered no runs on three hits and no walks while striking out nine. He posted 15 swinging strikes, 12 on his changeup.
“It’s one of the most special days I’ve ever had on the baseball field,” Price said. “So very special.
“(The changeup) was good. It was good in the bullpen warming up; it got better as the game went on. Made some adjustments with it, I think, after the fourth inning, and it was huge.”
Gonzalez homered off Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes in the seventh inning before Game 3 winner Nathan Eovaldi emerged from the bullpen to toss 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Boston closer Craig Kimbrel worked the ninth inning, earning his fifth save of the postseason and third of the ALCS.
Verlander wasn’t sharp with his secondary offerings, earning just one swing and miss on 19 curveballs, and one of the four put in play cleared the fence on the Martinez dinger. Still, he kept the Astros in contention until the sixth, when Boston, as it did all series, broke through.
The Red Sox tallied 27 runs in their four victories, running roughshod over a terrific Astros pitching staff that enjoyed historic success relative to run prevention during the regular season.
“They have a great lineup. If you don’t execute, they’re going to find ways to hurt you,” Verlander said after allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts over six innings. “Honestly, I thought it was a pretty good series. We had a chance in the ninth inning almost every game.
“We played good baseball. We did everything that we could possibly do. They won. It happens.”
Having their repeat hopes derailed at home was a bitter pill to swallow for the Astros, who overcame injuries to their frontline stars (Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer) while posting a second consecutive 100-win season. The same resilience that carried Houston to the title last postseason was on display throughout this year. Ultimately, the Red Sox, who won a franchise-record 108 games in the regular season, proved to be superior.
“They beat us,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We didn’t have enough this year.
“Everyone in here will wake up tomorrow (upset) that we didn’t win and we’re not headed to Boston on a flight. It’s tough, but all of us need to look in a mirror and figure out a way to get better for next year.”
—MoiseKapenda Bower, Field Level Media