These aren’t entirely the Houston Astros you love to hate, deep and indomitable and treating a World Series berth practically as a birthright.
Yet in a virtual must-win Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros proved yet again that regardless of their cast, they are awfully hard to kill.
Despite getting just four outs from their starting pitcher, the Astros pieced together an inspiring relief effort and quieted Boston’s red-hot lineup long enough for backup catcher Jason Castro to smack a go-ahead RBI single in the top of the ninth inning, opening the floodgates to a 9-2 victory before a Fenway Park crowd that pivoted from delirious to stunned in mere moments.
Just six outs from falling into a 3-1 ALCS hole, the Astros instead will play baseball at Minute Maid Park at least one more time this season. The series is tied, 2-2, and Game 5 Wednesday evening (5 ET) at Fenway is no longer a likely Red Sox coronation but rather for control of this battle of attrition.
“This is enjoying baseball as if you are a child,” says Astros manager Dusty Baker. “When you’re dead in the water and things aren’t going good, and then all of a sudden, boom, boom, boom, and you got seven runs. And that’s what they’ve been doing to us this whole series, and we’re capable of doing that as well.”
The turnabout was jarring, as unexpected as a seven-run ninth inning rally in which all the runs were scored with two outs – and with the winning blow delivered by a catcher with an .091 batting average in 26 career playoff plate appearances.
In fact, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi – reprising his heroic relief role for the 2018 World Series champs – was one strike from delivering the game to the bottom of the ninth, tied 2-2.
Yet a 1-2 curveball to Castro landed just outside the zone. Castro fouled off one pitch and then drilled a single to center, driving home Carlos Correa with the go-ahead run. A gaggle of orange and blue parkas bobbed up and down in the Astros dugout, giddy at their new life.
They wouldn’t stop celebrating until Eovaldi was chased, and six more runs crossed the plate, three on Michael Brantley’s three-run double.
That rally was almost as startling as Houston’s pitching effort.
After scoring 21 runs and slugging three grand slams in capturing Games 2 and 3, the Red Sox failed to gain separation in Game 4. Xander Bogaerts’ two-run, first inning home run gave them a 2-1 lead and negated Bregman’s solo homer in the top of the inning.
And when Zack Greinke, making his first start since Sept. 19, was lifted with one out and one on in the second, the script was intact.
Surely, the Boston offense would suffocate an Astros bullpen that has had had to absorb the many failings of their starting pitchers. Yet as Brooks Raley, and Cristian Javier and Phil Maton and finally Kendall Graveman emerged from the bullpen, the Red Sox seemed too intent on delivering the knockout blow.
“We had chances,” says Boston manager Alex Cora. “I mean, we’ve been so good for so long that you are going to have games like that.”
Houston’s bullpen quintet followed Greinke with 6 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, Javier contributing three hitless innings while pitching around two hits and three walks.
Graveman had not pitched two innings since April 3, but he gave up just a walk over two scoreless innings.
“I was mentally preparing myself to go three, honestly,” says Graveman, acquired from Seattle in July. “The conversation in the bullpen is if we need to pick someone up, we will. I think today was a telltale sign of that.”
They kept the score 2-1 long enough for Altuve to clobber a Garrett Whitlock pitch over the Green Monster to tie the score, 2-2, leading off the eighth.
The Red Sox could muster nothing but a two-out Hunter Renfroe walk, leaving the door open for Houston in the ninth.
And as they so often do, they walked right in and made this a series, once again.
“It was just a beautiful game today,” says Correa. “It’s never easy, man.”