Astros Outlast Red Sox to Open ALCS by Ben Clemens October 16, 2021 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.