HOUSTON -- A franchise-record 103 regular-season wins and a dominating performance against the Indians in the American League Division Series seemed to have the Astros poised to head back to the World Series full of bravado and confidence.:: ALCS schedule and results ::But after the Astros charged into Fenway Park
HOUSTON -- A franchise-record 103 regular-season wins and a dominating performance against the Indians in the American League Division Series seemed to have the Astros poised to head back to the World Series full of bravado and confidence.
:: ALCS schedule and results ::
But after the Astros charged into Fenway Park and stole Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, the Red Sox stopped the back-to-back tour cold in its tracks with the kind of dominating pitching and relentless offense that Houston hoped would be its ticket into the Fall Classic.
Behind six scoreless innings from an overpowering David Price and homers from J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers off ace righty Justin Verlander, the Red Sox eliminated the defending World Series champs with a 4-1 victory in Game 5 on Thursday night at Minute Maid Park.
"They played really well, they played better than us," Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. "It was a tough-fought series. They're a very good team and it's just disappointment."
When Tony Kemp flied out to Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi for the final out, the Astros' championship reign was over after 351 days. Players lingered in the dugout while Boston celebrated on the field. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Verlander were among the last to leave, with Correa resting his chin on his arm as the Red Sox danced.
Later in a quiet clubhouse, players shuffled about between lockers and exchanged goodbyes and hugs. A group of players sat in a circle and talked in hushed tones as reporters whizzed past them looking for the next interview.
"It's hard, it's always hard," Verlander said. "We had a good season. It didn't end up where we wanted. We lost to a great team. I said it last year, the playoffs, it's kind of flip a coin sometimes. It's whoever's playing the best baseball at the time. We were dealing with a ton of injuries as you can tell. The guys battled. We gave them a good fight. It just wasn't enough at the end. They played great baseball."
• Verlander falls victim to short LF porch in defeat
The Red Sox blitzed the Astros by winning four consecutive games in the series, including all three games at Minute Maid Park. Boston outpitched Houston in each of its wins and came up with clutch hits time and time again. The malaise at home was a familiar theme for an Astros team that played much better on the road this year than it did at Minute Maid Park.
Still, the Astros followed up an offseason of celebrating the team's first World Series championship by fending off the A's and winning their second consecutive AL West title, passing the 1998 Astros for most wins in club history. They overcame adversity that included key injuries to Correa and Altuve, the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player Award winner who battled through an injured right knee in the playoffs.
• McCullers, Altuve injuries may require surgery
"We feel like we set the bar exactly where it should be around here, which the World Series is the only thing that was going to make this team feel like we accomplished much," Houston manager AJ Hinch said. "But it's a pretty hollow feeling when the season abruptly ends the way that it does and the way that it did."
It was Altuve who had a two-run homer wiped off the books early in Game 4 because of fan interference, a monumental call that perhaps changed the trajectory of the series. The Astros lost Game 4 by that two-run margin, 8-6, leaving the bases loaded at the end of the game following a diving catch by Benintendi in left field.
"I'm sad but not disappointed about anybody here because every single guy shows up all year, and I can tell you they're trying hard to do everything they could to help the team," Altuve said.
That was as close as Houston would come to scoring again in the series until Marwin Gonzalez homered off Matt Barnes in the seventh inning of Game 5 to cut Boston's lead to 4-1. Price dominated from the first pitch, outdueling his former teammate, Verlander, who allowed four runs and seven hits in six innings. Verlander had tossed 26 consecutive scoreless innings in postseason elimination games before Martinez took him deep in the third inning.
Verlander appeared to have struck out Martinez on an 0-2 slider on the pitch prior to the home run but didn't get the call. In the sixth, Devers dropped a three-run homer into the first row of the Crawford Boxes to put the Red Sox ahead, 4-0, and the Astros on the ropes.
"They have a great lineup," Verlander said. "If you don't execute, they're going to find ways to hurt you. Four runs in a nine-inning ballgame, that's not a ton. We had some success against them -- just not quite enough. Honestly, I thought it was a pretty good series. We had a chance there in the ninth inning almost every game."
The Astros' window of contention in the AL remains wide open with many of their key personnel returning in 2019, but free agency lurks for starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, Gonzalez, catcher Brian McCann and designated hitter Evan Gattis, among others.
Houston's core -- led by Altuve, Correa, Bregman and George Springer -- returns intact, along with All-Star starting pitchers Verlander and Gerrit Cole, but the Astros will have to examine some of the deficiencies the team had on offense all season that were exploited by the Red Sox in the ALCS.
"It's always disappointing to lose," said Springer, whose eighth-inning single extended his postseason hitting streak to 14 games. "It's a tough pill to swallow. Sometimes you have to give credit to the other guys. They got the big hit in big situations and made big plays. That's the game. You put it behind you, let it soak in for a few days and you're onto next year."
The long offseason has begun in Houston.
Yuli Gurriel's fourth-inning double gave him 13 extra-base hits for his postseason career, passing Hall of Famer Tony Perez for the most among Cuban-born players.
HE SAID IT
"To be honest with y'all, this year's team was better than last year's team, I believe. The ball's got to bounce your way in the postseason, and it didn't. It's tough. We'll learn from it and everyone in here will have a little bit of an edge to play with next year, a little bit of a chip on our shoulder knowing that we believe we should have been back-to-back champions. I know every day when I wake up and the rest of these guys wake up in the offseason, there will be one thing on their mind, and that will be working towards winning it next year." -- Bregman
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.