It Really is a Game of Inches
By Larry Dierker
2018 ALCS Game 1
The Red Sox didn’t win 108 games by accident. And the Astros could have won more than 103 games if their best hitters hadn’t missed so much time. For the regular season at least, they were the best two teams in baseball.
Justin Verlander and Chris Sale are among the best pitchers in the game. And Fenway Park is perhaps the most magical ballpark of all time. What a way to start the American League Championship Series – even in the icy chill.
Both teams sailed through the first round of the playoffs without much trouble. But the Astros have had more success at Fenway the last few years than any other visiting team. For that reason, as an Astros fan but also a baseball veteran, I was worried.
It’s hard to maintain mastery of a great team for long. And it’s hard to stay hot for a whole month, as the Astros did this September. Sweeping the Indians in the Division Series after leaving the A’s in their dust, the Astros seemed to be tempting fate.
Last year, the Indians won 22 consecutive games in September; I didn’t think they could stay hot much longer. I imagine they felt like the team of destiny when they also won the first two playoff games against the Yankees.
But that’s where it ended. The Bombers won the next three, to advance to the American League Championship Series.
Keeping it Going
When will it end for the Astros? Maybe it won’t. They won Game One 7-2, but it didn’t feel that easy.
They opened with two runs in the second, when Sale got wild. With two outs, he walked two and hit a batter, loading the bases. Then George Springer hit a bullet to third on a 3-2 pitch. Eduardo Nunez reached too far, and the ball got under him. It was scored a two-run single, but it Nunez could have made the play.
A Game of Inches
With the score 2-2 in the fifth, Verlander got wild. With one out and a man on first, he started pulling his fastball off the plate, and he walked Nunez. Then he walked Jackie Bradley.
Pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland had a great at-bat: with two strikes, Verlander made some terrific pitches, but Moreland was able to check his swings, finally drawing a walk on the 3-2 pitch.
The Sox were on the board — by inches.
Mookie Betts reached first on a force play at the plate, but the Astros couldn’t get the double play. Then Verlander spiked a slider in the dirt, and it got by Martin Maldonado. The game was tied, and the bases were still loaded for Andrew Benintendi.
The count went full again, and umpire James Hoye called Benintendi out on a fastball low and away, just off the plate. It should have been a bases-loaded walk, but instead, the Astros escaped.
Red Sox skipper Alex Cora wasn’t so lucky. He argued the call and was ejected for the second time this year — even though he was right. I’ve been advocating the electronic strike zone all year, but in this case, it would have given the Red Sox the lead.
What are the chances of Sale and Verlander issuing three free passes in one inning? As Yogi Berra said, “In baseball, you don’t know nothin’.”
Joe Kelly came in to pitch in the sixth inning, and he immediately hit Alex Bregman with a 100 MPH fastball — ouch! Then Nunez made an error on what could have been a double-play grounder.
If you are a team of destiny, you make him pay.
Carlos Correa did just that, with a broken-bat blooper. One inch farther up the bat, and it would have been the third out.
Closing the Deal
Both bullpens stiffened, and it was still 3-2 Astros in the top of the ninth. Josh Reddick led off with a bomb — 408 feet, to be exact – no inches there. The Astros had some breathing room for the first time since the second inning.
After striking out Springer, Brandon Workman walked Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman on 3-2 pitches.
Yuli Gurriel hit a lazy fly ball on the next pitch. It traveled 310 feet into the right-field bleachers — maybe a foot or two fair, and just over the shortest fence in all of baseball.
Gurriel’s homer sucked the air out of Fenway. Faithful fans lost faith, and they headed for the exits, having seen too many inches. Colin McHugh retired the Red Sox easily in the ninth – as if it were his destiny.
But the Red Sox didn’t win 108 games by giving up. David Price will take the hill for Game 2, trying to stem the Astros’ tide as the Yankees did with the Indians last year. The Sox will have to go through Gerrit Cole and a stingy Astros bullpen to do it, but it could happen. By inches, if need be.
Perhaps the game will depend on an inch or two either way. Or it could be 16-1, like Game 3 of the Division Series, when the Red Sox beat the Yankees by a mile.
As Joaquin Andújar said, when asked if the Astros could stay ahead of the Dodgers in early September 1980: “In baseball, you can sum it up in one word: ‘you-never-know’.”