While the Red Sox (97-46) have held the best record in MLB for nearly the entire season -- and by a healthy margin -- they haven't executed as well as their opponent at the plate or in the field in the first two games of this series.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora knows all too well about the Astros, having won the World Series with them as bench coach last season.
"I know who they are, and they're playing good baseball," Cora said. "Hopefully we can face them later on in the year, and that's when it's either very gratifying or it will be tough. We know where we are. We know what we have to do. Obviously, they're battling in that division, and they're getting healthy. That's a good team. It's a complete team. Today, I felt we had chances with everybody out there. Just didn't cash in. But it's OK."
The best opportunity of them all came in the bottom of the ninth, with two on and two outs and AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate J.D. Martinez at the plate. Following Andrew Benintendi's clutch RBI single, Martinez swung ferociously at the first two pitches from Astros closer Roberto Osuna and fouled them straight back. On the third pitch, Martinez rolled over on an 83.5-mph changeup for a game-ending double play.
"Fouled off pitches to hit, and I rolled the ball over to end the game. Pretty much how it went down," said Martinez.
It was a fitting capper in a game in which the Red Sox were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and left 11 on base.
"The good thing was that we had a chance," said shortstop Xander Bogaerts. "I always feel like we have a chance here, especially in the late innings. We know we've been playing good baseball, especially later on. They have a good team -- their starting lineup, starting pitching, bullpen. It will happen.
"We were close, and it's one of the good things about playing here, good things can happen. Obviously, we had one of our best hitters at the plate right there and he didn't come through, but nine out of 10 times, he will."
The Red Sox hope to reverse the narrative on Sunday night in the final matchup between the teams in the regular season. What is the best way to do that?
"Score early," said Bogaerts. "It's not something that is easy to do. They have a good staff. They're a good team. They won it last year. It's not a fluke. They're obviously a good team. We're right there with them. For me, we're even better. We just have to come out and prove it. Today we kind of let this one get away, but more times than not, we'll come out on top."
After a dominant return from the disabled list last time out, Eduardo Rodriguez took a significant step back in this one, giving up six hits and five runs in 3 1/3 innings. The Red Sox led briefly on an RBI single by Bogaerts in the bottom of the first, but the Astros roared right back with two in the second, one in the third and two in the fourth to take a 5-1 lead.
"No matter what team you face, you have to throw the ball right where you want it," Rodriguez said. "If you miss on the plate in the big leagues, that's what's going to happen. I was missing with my fastball and my changeup and everything."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Marisnick robs Benintendi: In the bottom of the fourth with the bases loaded and two outs, Benintendi lined one to left-center that looked like it might scrape the Monster for a three-run double. But Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick raced over and made a tremendous catch as he banged into the wall.
"I would love to say I knew that ball was going to find green or hit the wall, but defensively, he's one of the best in the big leagues. He gets great jumps, and he's fearless out there. You could see him closing the gap, and he made a nice play," said Cora.
SOUND SMART The Red Sox are 12-32 when they score three runs or fewer and 85-14 when they score four runs or more.
UP NEXT Right-hander Rick Porcello, who held the Braves to two hits and one run over five innings in his last start, will close out this three-game series against the Astros on Sunday night. Porcello defeated the Astros on June 3, holding them to three runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings. Houston counters with lefty Dallas Keuchel (11-10, 3.46 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 8:05 ET.