Astros Outlast Red Sox to Open ALCS

The Dutch historian and children’s author Hendrik Willem van Loon had an enjoyable definition of eternity. Every thousand years, he said, a bird comes to sharpen its beak on a hundred-mile-high, hundred-mile-wide rock. When the rock has been worn away by the bird’s beak, one day of eternity will have passed.

Personally, I think he could have just used the pitches in tonight’s Astros-Red Sox game to count eternity. Two of the best, grindiest offenses in baseball faced off against two starters who scuffled with control, and the result was a ponderous affair that lasted more than four hours and tested the nerves and patience of fans on both sides.

The Red Sox set the tone with a disciplined, persistent attack. After a leadoff single was erased by a double play, they wore Framber Valdez down, beak-sharpening peck by peck. A walk put a runner back on first. A flare over the shift added another runner before a walk loaded the bases. Hunter Renfroe flew out to end the threat, but the Red Sox had Valdez’s number. They hardly swung at bad pitches and rarely missed when they did swing.

The Astros returned the favor in the bottom of the first. Another power lefty, Chris Sale, received roughly the same treatment. Jose Altuve walked to lead off, professional hitter (™) Michael Brantley bashed a line drive out, and Alex Bregman followed with a line drive of his own for a single. A wild pitch and a sacrifice fly later, the Astros had the lead, and though Sale escaped further damage, he needed 30 pitches to do so.

After a second inning where both teams held serve — four baserunners, no runs thanks to a sprawling Enrique Hernández catch — the game reached its next logical step, eliminating the starters. Hernández blasted a 450-foot home run to tie the score, and then the Boston offense got down to business. A Xander Bogaerts walk here, a Rafael Devers single there, and Valdez had his back against the wall again. This time, he wasn’t so lucky — he coaxed a tailor-made double play ball out of J.D. Martinez, but Altuve booted it. A double and a strikeout later, Dusty Baker had seen enough. Yimi García came in to close the inning, but the Red Sox scored three runs and cracked into the leaky Houston bullpen.

Two can play at that game. Alvarez beat the shift for a single, Carlos Correa followed with a single of his own, and Alex Cora had seen enough. He left Sale in for a lefty-lefty matchup with Kyle Tucker, but that was it: Adam Ottavino came in to end the threat, and it was off to the bullpens for the remainder of the game.

The two offenses had been relentless in their attack. Sale drew 30 swings and only six whiffs. Valdez wasn’t much better — 24 swings and six whiffs. They combined for four strikeouts, four walks, and a hit batter. These are good pitchers! They simply couldn’t resist the onslaught.

If you want to fight such capable hitters, you’ll need overwhelming stuff. Cristian Javier managed to stem the tide with a heaping helping of four-seam fastballs. Ottavino laid waste to a four-righty pocket of the Houston lineup. For the most part, though, baserunners felt preordained. It was a matter of what each team did with them — and who could find more pitchers to sacrifice to the incessant, onrushing offenses.

That’s no idle choice of words. The raw number of pitchers each team needed to navigate the game speaks to how tough the lineups are. Both sides used eight pitchers. That’s only the third nine-inning postseason game ever where each side used eight pitchers. The previous two times were both on October 1, 2020 — they were part of the bunched-together playoff schedule and in the strangest season ever for pitchers, where workload management was at best a guess.

The final baserunner numbers were impressive. The Astros managed 15 baserunners, good for a .394 on-base percentage. The Red Sox weren’t far behind with 14. Double plays erased a few, but for the most part, at-bats were taken in important spots, with runners on base and the game in danger of either flipping from one side to the other or spiraling out of control.

Despite both sides’ continuous pressure, the Astros handily won the battle to overwhelm the bullpens. They were down 3-1 when Sale left the game, but as they reached the soft underbelly of the Red Sox bullpen, they turned the tide. In the sixth, Altuve came to the plate with a man on first and two outs. Tanner Houck grooved a first-pitch slider, middle-middle at 84 mph, and Altuve crushed it 383 feet to left for a game-tying home run.

While the Sox continued to threaten but come up empty — a double in the fourth, a single in the seventh, a warning track blast in the eighth with a runner aboard — the Astros pulled away. Correa got a hanging changeup from a wild Hansel Robles and chipped it into the Crawford Boxes to retake the lead, 4-3. When Hirokazu Sawamura walked or hit the first three batters he saw, Altuve cashed in with a sacrifice fly to make it 5-3.

That left only the ninth inning for the Red Sox to catch up. Luckily, they had Hernández coming up, and he’s been aflame this October. Coming into this game, he was hitting .435/.440/.826, and he had already added to that line with a 3-4 day that included a single, a bloop double, and that moonshot that opened the scoring for Boston when he stepped to the plate down two runs.

He added to his haul. Ryan Pressly threw a bottom-third slider on 1-1, and Hernández went full Pujols-on-Lidge, 425 feet off the facing in left field. That set up for a potentially explosive finish, but Pressly danced through raindrops and came out dry. He stuck with what has always worked for him: sliders pounding the bottom of the zone and fastballs generally aimed down the pipe. Each of the next three Boston batters smashed a ball more than 100 mph — and each hit them into the ground for an out.

This game feels like a premonition of how this series will be won. The final tally, a 5-4 score, doesn’t convey how much pressure each offense put on. It wasn’t even just the baserunners — full counts and foul balls aplenty kept pitchers grasping for answers. Neither team has a bulletproof bullpen, which means that the middle and later innings will be high-wire acts.

That makes for one easy way to get ahead: get length out of starters. That obviously didn’t happen today, but Nathan Eovaldi seems like a good bet to do so, and Luis Garcia has been intermittently brilliant this year. Short of that, winning the home-runs-against-relievers lottery is the surest way to success. It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out series. It’s going to feel like an eternity — at least to the sequence of pitchers facing down endless ranks of baserunners.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

16 total pitchers used in a 9-inning game that ended 5-4. Sixteen! In an ALCS Game 1!! Makes sense how it went over four hours long. I’m glad I stopped watching after Sale was pulled… the game’s foundation is broken from an entertainment standpoint. When baseball’s most important position on the diamond has been reduced to a revolving door of nameless, uninteresting dudes, you have serious issues.

Your turn, MLB. You need to fix this.

Russell Eassom
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Member

I obviously don’t understand what baseball means to you because that was one of the most entertaining games I’ve watched as a neutral. It was a thrilling duel which went back and forth between the teams with each inning feeling like it was the most important innings.

Would it have been a better game if the starters went a bit further, who knows? Is it a shame that the teams are trying to do their best and us fans get to watch loads of different types of pitches being thrown by different pitchers constantly challenging the hitters? Not for me.

Radhames Liz
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Radhames Liz

Much as I love seeing a Dusty Baker-managed team win what was essentially a bullpen game after all the flack he’s gotten over the years for his bullpen (mis)managment, the fact remains that most people don’t want to devote 4 hours to any given activity. I’m no expert, but this is (probably) why movies are around 2 hours long. So, I don’t know whether bullpenning is the problem or if it’s something else, but I can fully understand the OP’s complaint about length and endless play-stoppages.

The point about “uninteresting dudes” is also well taken. If you’re MLB, what do you market to the casual, nuetral fan when the pitchers-duel is practically extinct? More homeruns, I guess, because that same casual, neutral fan doesn’t care about Ryan Brasier and Phil Maton, frankly.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Bullpenning has drastically reduced the impact of individual pitchers, which in turn means less pitchers can be stars, which in turns means MLB has a difficult task on its hands when marketing one of the two most important aspects of the game of baseball. We all give MLB a tough time about how it markets the game, but the way the game has developed over the last 10/15 years has tied one arm behind its back.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Baseball is at its best to me when it’s a duel between two pitchers, because there’s a story to be told there. Carpenter and Halladay, Clemens and Pedro, Smoltz and Morris, Gooden and Ryan, Lincecum and Lee, any duel between two pitchers who are legitimate stars you can think of. Really, the more pitchers that are used, the less invested I am in their performance, and the game as a result. Not to mention that it drastically slows the pace down, as relievers tend to work slower.

I didn’t watch the full game, like I said. As I often tend to do, I turned it off after both starters were pulled. I just checked the highlights and the box score when I woke up.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

The importance of the running back in the NFL and the low-post center in the NBA has never been lower, and those sports are doing fine. I don’t see why a similar situation with starting pitchers is such a huge problem that’s going to destroy the game.

I’d also point out that the star starting pitcher isn’t dead, the #4 starter being asked to get 21 outs in a game is dead. When the best starters in baseball take the mound, they’re not pulled after 6 outs

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about what’s going on. On the surface, yesterday’s games do resemble the star pitchers being pulled after eight outs. But practically, neither of the teams yesterday were planning on a bullpen games as I understand it. But things weren’t going well for them, the game was close, and they had more confidence in their bullpen so they pulled the starters. It’s related to the issue of bullpenning but the big difference in strategy between 2021 and 2011 is the decision making in the third inning, not before the game.

Radhames Liz
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Radhames Liz

To be clear: I’m not criticizing either manager’s decision. It seems like they got it right under the circumstances. I do know that the game lasted 4 hours in a year with the longest avg game time on record. I guess it’s just an aesthetic preference, but I prefer something a little brisker. Incentivizing longer starts could be one way to do that (not that I trust this commissioner to do so effectively and without compromising pitchers’ health/safety).

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

I would like to agree with you but I am fairly certain that both teams had made a pre-game decision to get both starters out early. neither one was ever going to see the 6th or probably even the 5th. I am thinking that Cora has the same plan today which is why he used Robles, a one pitch stiff, instead of the proper choice, Whitlock, with the game on the line. Cora and Bloom are planning to back up Eovaldi with Whitlock today which is why he wasn’t used in game 1 and that was written in stone before Game 1. The fact that the Red Sox just pasted 4 on the board as I write this may give Eovaldi a little more time on the mound.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

No way you just compared the running back and the center to the starting pitcher, they’re not even close to the same level of importance as a narrative figure. The more adequate comparison is the hockey goaltender. Like the starting pitcher, he is the most important player in any single game, with the largest impact in regards to wins or losses. Like the starting pitcher, he remains in the middle of the action as everyone else rotates around him. The hockey equivalent to what we’re seeing now would be teams using 3 goalies per game, which would be ridiculous.

Also, the best starters are indeed being taken out extremely early. Eovaldi got yanked after 5 innings in the ALDS, Framber got yanked early in both of his starts this postseason, Fried was taken out for no reason, so were Peralta and even Burnes. Thank God for the NL, however, or this postseason would’ve been a struggle. At least starters there are closer to what a starter should be.

Radhames Liz
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Radhames Liz

Well, 4th starters rarely if ever start a playoff game, so I’m not sure I see the relevance here.

I agree that the changes you mentioned in basketball and football aren’t going to destroy the sports. MLB will probably be fine too. All three sports, though, have gotten longer and in my opinion less interesting than they were 8-10 years ago.

A lot of that is the sameness in the way teams play. Last night, for example, both teams used exactly 8 pitchers and hit exactly two homeruns. Neither attempted a steal. Every NBA team seems to shoot 3s about 40% of the time. Almost every NFL team throws 65% of the time. If you like it, that’s fine. I think it gets a bit repetitive.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

While those positions you mentioned were part of the game they were not the dominant one. Chris Sale has reached the end of the 6th inning in one start this year. Why are teams still paying ridiculous amounts of money to guys who are only throwing 4-5 innings a game and not reaching enough innings to qualify over the season. This appears to be madness but to paraphrase P,T. Barnum, “Nobody has ever seen any group dumber than major league General Managers.”

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Well in Sale’s specific case that probably has more to do with him coming off of Tommy John than it does modern pitcher usage

Dave T
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Dave T

I don’t think it will “destroy the game”, but baseball already has structural issues in marketing stars vs. football and basketball.

Star hitters only have 4 or 5 plate appearances per game. Star fielders may not have any opportunity to make a truly difficult/spectacular fielding play in a given game. Decline in the use of starting pitchers heightens that tendency.

The NFL still has easily noticeable (and marketable) superstars. Definitely quarterbacks, and also top tier wide receivers and pass rushers to some extent.

The NBA is also very much a superstar-driven league, even if low-post centers are not among the subgroup of players in that superstar category.

I therefore don’t see this comparison as very useful.

Weily Soong
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Weily Soong

That game was so entertaining and thrilling. Lots of strategy was needed. Big college football games and NFL games now almost go 4 hours. I just don’t understand why people complain about baseball’s time element, especially during playoff season. Part of the joy of baseball is the lack of a time clock. Everything in modern life seems to be timed and in a rush. Just relax and enjoy!

Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

The most effective way to get shorter games would be to make HR hard to hit, which would incentivise pitching to contact and fewer pitchers. I don’t know that fans would really prefer a Mark Buehrle game to yesterday’s though. HR and K are pretty popular