Given that the American League Championship Series began with a split of two games at Minute Maid Park, it was hard to imagine the Astros would return home for Game 6 with the chance to clinch the AL pennant. But here we are. On the eve of what may be the final game between the Red Sox and Astros, the MLB.com reporters who have been covering the entire series discuss what has happened, and what still lies ahead.
What surprised you more about Games 4 and 5 -- that the Astros pitching got back on track after two disastrous games, or that the Red Sox hitting went so cold after rolling over the Astros so easily in Games 2 and 3?
Brian McTaggart, Astros beat reporter: The way the Astros pitching has turned on a dime has been impressive. I figured the Astros’ bats would come alive, and they did in a big way with Jose Altuve’s game-tying homer in the eighth inning of Game 4. That was the start of 15 unanswered runs by the Astros. However, Houston’s pitching was shambles entering Game 4. After allowing 25 runs in the first three games, the Astros have allowed three runs in a pair of blowout wins on the road. I don’t know if Houston discovered something regarding Boston picking up some pitching tendencies or even some signs, but something changed between Games 3 and 4.
Ian Browne, Red Sox beat reporter: Definitely the Astros’ pitching. Those of us who have watched the Red Sox from April through October know that their offense has been subject to wild streaks up and down all season. Remember, this team really stopped hitting late in the season when their postseason lives nearly depended on it, even in two of three games in Baltimore against the lowly Orioles -- games No. 157 and 159. Finally, in Game No. 162, down 5-1 against a bad Nationals team, Rafael Devers carried them to victory. Then they caught lightning in a bottle from Game 2 of the AL Division Series through Game 3 of the ALCS. The way these Boston bats can run cold just as long as they run hot, I’m not sure there is enough time for them to salvage this series.
Molly Burkhardt, MLB.com reporter/producer: I agree with Ian in that a streaky offense doesn’t really surprise me with this Boston team. What did surprise me, though, is that everyone seemed to go cold at the same time. Still, I’m more shocked at the Astros’ pitching finding its footing. In the first four games, Houston starters went a combined 6 2/3 innings. After heavily relying on their bullpen, the Astros desperately needed a solid start from Framber Valdez in Game 5. They of course got that and more with a dominant eight-inning outing. Houston’s ability to recover on the mound and give its ‘pen some much-needed rest will be the difference maker in this series.
Daniel Kramer, Mariners beat reporter/Astros ALCS contributor: Boston’s hitting, hands down, and it’s really not even close. The Astros getting back into this series seemed so predictable -- but with the caveat that they would only be able to if they struck early. Houston’s two losses in this series were blowouts, thanks to some historic Red Sox grand slams. The Astros’ bats were essentially set up to fail, playing in such drastic deficits in those games where nothing short of swinging out of their shoes would help them creep their way back in.
Martín Gallegos, A’s beat reporter/Red Sox ALCS contributor: Houston’s pitching getting back on track is not something I saw coming. You knew they were in a bad spot after Game 2, when Luis Garcia left with an injury and Jake Odorizzi had to get burned out of the bullpen. Zack Greinke’s short outing in Game 4 felt like the final nail in the coffin because the Red Sox offense continued looking like it was firing on all cylinders early in that game. Instead, the Astros’ offense is coming to life, which I guess should not come as a surprise based on what it did all regular season. Still, I could see Boston’s hitters getting it going again back at Minute Maid.
The Astros are ahead in the series 3-2 and just have to win one of two at home. This seems like a done deal for Houston. Is there anyone in our group that thinks the Red Sox can pull this off and win both games?
McTaggart: Oh, this series is very much far from over. It’s not like the Astros have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole lined up in Games 6 and 7. Nothing against Game 6 starter Luis Garcia, but I doubt he’s going to have a Framber Valdez-like effort for the Astros, which means multiple arms are going to have to pitch well. The Astros don’t have to dig very deep into their memory bank about coming home with a 3-2 lead. They had a 3-2 lead in the 2019 World Series coming back to Minute Maid Park and lost both games to the Washington Nationals.
Browne: Can they? Sure. Houston’s pitching is no great shakes, especially without McCullers. Will they? I don’t believe so, because when you have a team down like the Red Sox had the Astros down, you need to step on their throats, otherwise you are likely in trouble. I’ve seen this movie many times before when the Red Sox were the team that appeared down for the count and another team (2004 Yankees, 2007 Indians, 2013 Tigers and Cardinals, etc.) let them rise back up. I do think there’s a decent chance of a Game 7. The Sox would seem to have a pretty good pitching advantage in Game 6 with Nathan Eovaldi going.
Burkhardt: This organization has of course overcome worse odds in the past, and this season has been the year of the comeback for the Red Sox. However, they’re going to need a lot of things to start clicking if they’re going to pull this off. With Nathan Eovaldi on the mound Friday, I think Boston can force a Game 7. Beyond that, I think the series goes to the Astros. They’ve hit their stride on offense right as the Red Sox lost their footing, and now they have home-field advantage on their side. Although, that’s had a varied impact thus far in this series, so anything is possible.
Kramer: Absolutely. Why not? Astros Game 6 starter Luis Garcia left after facing just eight hitters in Game 2 due to a right knee strain, but he also looked incredibly vulnerable in the first inning of that outing, walking two to set up J.D. Martinez for what turned out to be a very predictable grand slam. If Garcia gets in trouble early, Houston will have to turn to its bullpen yet again. Even with two days’ collective rest, have we already forgotten that the Astros had to turn to their relievers for 28 1/3 of the first 35 innings of this series?
Gallegos: I think the Red Sox have a decent chance of pulling this off. If you look at their recent hitting slump, to me, it’s really only been one game. Yes, Valdez was a beast in Game 5. But even Game 4 saw some good at-bats from Boston’s hitters, they just couldn’t cash in with runners in scoring position, which has been rare for them during the postseason. I could easily see the Red Sox get back to their hot-hitting ways in Game 6. Win that, and anything can happen in Game 7.
Looking at the entire series, what stands out to you as the most surprising element?
McTaggart: Framber Valdez’s dominance is the biggest development of this series. I mean, the Astros had only gotten 6 2/3 total innings from their starters in the first four games, and Valdez completely flipped the script. The Astros used only one reliever in Game 5 -- Ryne Stanek -- so that allowed them to use the off-day to completely reset their bullpen, which figures to be key in Game 6 and potentially Game 7. It wasn’t surprising that Valdez pitched well, but to go eight innings was pretty stunning, frankly.
Browne: The way Alex Cora went from so hot to so cold. In his first two Octobers, he could do almost nothing wrong, riding a lifetime postseason record of 17-5 into Game 4. My point here isn’t to criticize Cora or to say his moves haven’t had sound logic. I’m just saying that he was so hot for one and a half postseasons with basically everything he touched turning to gold, and now he is seeing the other side of it with some of his key moves not working. His decisions to take Nick Pivetta out after five innings in Game 4 and to try to extend Chris Sale past five innings in Game 5 both backfired. Cora is now seeing the ups and downs every manager goes through in the postseason.
Burkhardt: I think I was most surprised at Framber Valdez going eight innings in Game 5. And that’s not a knock on his ability, more so the nature of the postseason. There have been few quality starts in the American League this October, and managers have been aggressive in pulling starters early. Giving the Astros eight innings after their starters combined for 6 2/3 in the first four games completely changed the course of the series.
Kramer: Lance McCullers Jr.’s absence looming as large as it did. Houston got here without Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel. Its lineup is stacked, and it seemed like no matter the stakes, Carlos Correa & Co. would be able to hit their way out of any situation. But innings allocation became so overwhelming once the rest of the Astros’ rotation stumbled. There was essentially no margin for error, which is precisely when Boston struck hardest. Houston can still pull this off, but can you imagine if it had its best arm starting Game 6?
Gallegos: Just the immense difference of feelings from game to game. Aside from a tightly contested Game 1, each game has ended in a blowout. Game 4 was exciting, but even that one got ugly in a hurry. It’s made it tough to get a gauge on who should be the favorite.
If the series ended today, the ALCS MVP would be _____.
McTaggart: Yuli Gurriel. He’s 9-for-19 in the series with hits in all five games, including three multihit games. He also has driven in a team-high six runs in the series.
Browne: Yordan Alvarez with a qualifier that if Framber Valdez comes up big out of the bullpen in a potential Game 7, he might wrestle the trophy away.
Burkhardt: Yordan Alvarez.
Kramer: Yordan Alvarez. Even before his Game 5 heroics, I mentioned to our colleague Alyson Footer in the press box that I was taken aback by how quietly productive he’d been to that point -- maybe that was because he hadn’t yet left the yard. After Wednesday’s showing against Chris Sale, he’s hitting .421/.455/.632 (1.086 OPS) in this ALCS.
Gallegos: Yordan Alvarez.
After being absolutely steamrolled in Games 2 and 3, do you think the Astros regained any kind of psychological advantage by being able to roar back in Games 4 and 5? I know most of us don’t believe in momentum, per se, but is there anything to the theory that the Sox might be a little shell-shocked by the tables turning on them so quickly? Can that affect their confidence?
McTaggart: I don’t know if it’s much about momentum, rather than the Astros seemed to have figured it out, both on pitching and defense. Will that carry over into Friday? The Astros should be very confident playing at home, where they’ve played very well this year, but if the Red Sox jump out to a quick lead in Game 6, any momentum is out the window. I think the Astros’ best chance is to finish the series in six games with a rested bullpen at the ready.
Browne: The Red Sox will not be shell-shocked. They’ve had countless opportunities to be shell-shocked this season and they’ve proven many times how resilient they are. The issue is that the Astros are now getting hot, they are getting their swagger back and they have the home crowd for the rest of the series. All season long, Boston’s success has been predicated on the offense. If they can warm up again, they have a chance. If they can’t, Houston will be in the World Series. I will say this: When the Red Sox have slumps offensively, they tend to press too hard to get out of it. I just wouldn’t term it as shell-shocked. If you see the Sox expanding the strike zone early in Game 6, you will know they are pressing.
Kramer: Totally. And now the Astros are going home needing to win just one of two.
Burkhardt: The Red Sox don’t seem to be a team that really gets rattled. Even after losing Games 4 and 5, there was no sense of panic or worry from Alex Cora or the players. Also, everything I thought I knew about momentum has gone out the window this series. The Red Sox were able to get a pretty convincing win in Houston, and the Astros took two wins at Fenway. The players on both sides have repeatedly brought up the “one game at a time” mentality. Though a cliche, it seems that neither team is letting the outcome of the prior game sway their mentality going into the next. It starts and ends with the Red Sox getting the bats going again like they did earlier in the series.
Gallegos: Based on how the Red Sox and Alex Cora reacted after Games 4 and 5, this group doesn’t strike me as one low on confidence. But if there is such a thing as momentum, it’s definitely in heavy favor of Houston entering Game 6, especially with the series shifting back to what should be a raucous atmosphere at Minute Maid.
Prediction time! Pick one:
• Astros win Game 6
• Astros lose Game 6 but win Game 7
• Red Sox win both games
McTaggart: Astros win Game 6
Browne: Astros lose Game 6 but win Game 7
Burkhardt: Astros lose Game 6 but win Game 7
Kramer: Red Sox win both games
Gallegos: Astros win Game 6