BOSTON -- The Chris Sale who dominated the Yankees in the American League Division Series -- both as a starter and as a reliever -- was nowhere to be found in Saturday's Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.
Instead, the Sale who had diminished velocity and command late in the regular season re-appeared at an inopportune time.
The defending World Series champion Astros broke open a close game in the top of the ninth and rolled to a 7-2 victory to win the ALCS opener in a matchup of two juggernauts that combined for 211 wins in the regular season.
In the history of postseason series in the 2-3-2 format, the team that lost Game 1 at home has come back to win the series 27 out of 63 times (43 percent).
"I think we're already turning the page," said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. "This game's over. We've already talked about it. You know, let's go. Tomorrow's a new day. And that's it, really."
Sale lasted just four innings and 86 pitches, walking four and hitting a batter while striking out five. If nothing else, the lanky lefty minimized the damage, allowing one hit and two runs.
"He only commanded the fastball glove-side," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was ejected in the bottom of the fifth for arguing balls and strikes. "He didn't find his slider until the fourth. The changeup was OK. Fastball arm-side and the slider, it wasn't there, so it was a struggle for him tonight."
Boston's offense was stifled by Justin Verlander and Houston's bullpen, generating just three hits in the defeat.
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Though Sale wasn't involved in the decision -- the Astros took the lead for good on Carlos Correa's RBI single off losing pitcher Joe Kelly in the sixth -- his performance leaves concerns about how much the Red Sox can ride him for the rest of the series.
Cora remains confident the ace who was limited to just 17 innings from July 28 through the end of the regular season due to left shoulder inflammation is healthy enough.
"Early in the game [his velocity] was off," Cora said. "But at the end you saw it 93, 94. He finished strong. But I felt like where we were in the game it was [Josh] Reddick and the top of the lineup, it was better going to somebody else."
It was just eight days ago that Sale set the tone when he fired the first pitch of the ALDS for a 95.8-mph strike against the Yankees. His first pitch against the Astros came in at just 91 mph, and was a ball to George Springer.
"I know he's coming off injury, but it doesn't matter if that guy is coming off injury or pitching at the top of his game; he's tough. He's a competitor," said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. "It's not a comfortable at-bat, ever. He's one of the best pitchers in the game. He's not easy. I don't care what anybody says about his velo being down or whatever; he's one of the best pitchers in the game. I know everyone in here has got a ton of respect for him."
Meanwhile, Verlander did what he does, limiting the Sox to two hits and two runs over six innings while walking four and striking out six. The ace threw 90 pitches, and Astros manager AJ Hinch turned the ball over to his bullpen for the final nine outs.
The Red Sox were right in it, down, 3-2, after eight. But Houston put up a four-run barrage in the top of the ninth against Brandon Workman. Did the Red Sox contemplate going to closer Craig Kimbrel instead to try to keep the game as close as possible?
"We were thinking Rick [Porcello] and Work," said Cora. "They were in the lineup. Work, if he executes pitches, we can get away with it because of the breaking ball and the fastball outside. He didn't execute his pitches and they made him pay."
Sale's trouble peaked in the second inning, when he tossed 33 pitches. With two outs and nobody on base and the Nos. 7-8-9 hitters coming up, Sale issued a walk, a hit batter and another walk.
"Lost command," said Sale. "Kind of out there searching for it. Just do the best you can to corral it in and limit the damage and get out there as quick as possible."
With the bases loaded, Springer stung a two-run single under the glove of third baseman Eduardo Nunez for the first two runs of the series.
"I think I had a chance to catch that ball," Nunez said. "He hit it hard, the ball, it was a pretty good hitter, but I have to take that ball."
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Sale averaged 92 mph on his fastball, a significant tick down from Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees, when he averaged 94.6.
"Velocity-wise he finished strong," said Cora. "But I decided -- he wanted to go out again [for the fifth] and I was like, 'No, man, it's going to be a long series. We need you.'"
Verlander was magnificent early on until finally running into some trouble in the bottom of the fifth. The righty walked three straight with one out, including one to pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland that forced in a run to make it 2-1. A wild pitch by Verlander scored Jackie Bradley Jr. to tie it. Andrew Benintendi struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch that appeared to be out of the strike zone to end the rally, and an irate Cora was ejected.
But it didn't stay tied long. Kelly opened the sixth by hitting Bregman on a 99.9-mph heater. Yuli Gurriel then spun a routine grounder to Nunez that could have been a double play. Instead, Nunez muffed it for an error and everyone was safe. The error proved costly. With two outs, Correa put Houston in front with an RBI single to center.
"At this stage, you don't turn double plays, you don't make the routine play, teams are going to make you pay," said Cora. "That's a tough team over there. You give him more than 27 outs and most of the time they're going to cash in."
Reddick got the party started in the ninth by mauling a solo shot to center against Workman. Gurriel then put the game out of reach by lacing a three-run homer just past Pesky's Pole to round out the scoring.
By the time it was over, the Red Sox were eager to just wash this one away and come back for Game 2.
"Obviously we lost Game 1 but I still like our chances," said Sale. "We've got [David Price] on the mound and a bunch of guys in here that are fired up about tonight. We're not going to hang our heads. We're not going to give up. This is the time where we kick into high gear and start fighting."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Mookie can't get it done: The best opportunity the Red Sox had to seize the momentum was in that fifth inning, when the dangerous Mookie Betts was up with the bases loaded and one out and his team down by a run. But Betts could only muster a grounder to third, and Bregman fired to the plate to get Nunez.
"Fastball middle-middle," said Betts. "You can't miss that pitch, especially against Verlander in a situation like that. Just one of those things where I didn't get the job done."
Betts is bound to break out at some point. He is a career .239 hitter in the postseason with no homers, two RBIs and a .653 OPS.
"It takes more than one person to win a game. Just have to continue what I can do to help the team," said Betts.
The one stat that didn't bode well for the Red Sox is that they walked 10 batters, setting a new franchise record for a nine-inning, postseason game. Also, Sale became the 22nd starting pitcher in postseason history to allow one or fewer hits while working four innings or less.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Though it was a real tough night for Nunez at the hot corner, he did combine on a tremendous play with first baseman Steve Pearce in the seventh. Reddick hit a hard grounder toward the line and Nunez made a dazzling diving stop and fired to first, where Pearce stretched as much as he possibly could and hung on to a piece of the bag for the out.
HE SAID IT
"I think Sale did such a tremendous job bending but not breaking. Obviously he's not feeling as fresh as he usually does. I mean, I think we could all see that. But I have a tremendous respect for what he was able to do tonight and go out there and keep those guys in the ballgame without his best stuff." -- Verlander on Sale
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
When Bregman hit a blooper into short right field in the top of the first inning, Betts and Pearce converged on the play, and Betts couldn't hang on. But he alertly fired to second to try to get the force on Jose Altuve. The throw was a bit wide, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts went to the ground and stretched in an attempt to snare it. Initially, Altuve was ruled safe. But after a review of close to two minutes, the call was overturned and Bogaerts was credited with keeping his foot on the bag long enough. Sale got through the inning without allowing a run.