HOUSTON -- The Red Sox arrived in Houston on Thursday amid external buzz that they might finally be in a hole too big to climb out of.
Internally, from manager Alex Cora to a battle-tested roster, the feeling is much different.
In a way, it is fitting that they are down 3-2 in the American League Championship Series and need to win two road games against a loaded Astros lineup in what figures to be a deafening crowd under the roof at Minute Maid Park.
It all fits the narrative of these 2021 Red Sox, who tend to respond when things appear to be bleakest.
“I feel like [as] a team, this is our story,” said Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. “We've been written off all year. Nobody, I don't think anyone in here either, thought we were going to be here. We know what we’re capable of.”
This team has been a wild roller-coaster ride, so why would it be any different now?
The Red Sox surged through the early portion of the playoffs, beating the Yankees soundly in the AL Wild Card Game. After losing Game 1 of the AL Division Series in ugly fashion at Tropicana Field, Boston then upended the 100-win Rays the next three games to punch a ticket to the ALCS.
The Red Sox had a chance to win Game 1 of the ALCS but squandered a 3-1 lead and lost, 5-4, creating urgency for Game 2 at Minute Maid Park the next day.
The tone was set for the topsy-turvy nature of this season when the Red Sox opened 2021 by getting swept at Fenway by the eventual 110-loss Orioles. Naturally, they responded to their first bit of adversity by sweeping the defending AL champion Rays on their way to a nine-game winning streak.
They were on fire for a while -- on pace to win 100 games at the midway point of the season.
Then came a July-August crash that knocked them out of first place and allowed fellow Wild Card contenders New York and Toronto to erase double-digit deficits to Boston in the standings.
So when the Red Sox got hit hard by a COVID-19 outbreak in late August to mid-September that left the roster without Xander Bogaerts, Kiké Hernández, Chris Sale and 10 others for different stretches, they hung in there just when the expectation was for them to fade away.
And just when they had prospered again, ripping off a seven-game winning streak from Sept. 14-21, they followed by getting swept at home by the Yankees, losing a lead one day with four outs to go and the next with five outs left.
There was one week left in the regular season, and the Red Sox had the easiest remaining schedule of the Wild Card competitors. So it figured that they lost two of three in Baltimore and seemed backed into a corner that final weekend in Washington.
But they swept the rebuilding Nationals, needing comeback wins to do it the final two days, and were finally able to drink champagne after Game 162.
Now, the Red Sox gear up for their latest pressurized situation in Game 6 of this ALCS, knowing a loss would spell the end of this wild season.
“The way I see it, we don't have to prove people wrong. We just have to prove to ourselves that, yeah, we belong here, and we've done it the whole season,” said Cora. “We have a good baseball team, and when we play good baseball, we win baseball games. We'll be ready for [Friday].”
The Red Sox can also draw on their ALCS against Houston three years ago, when they won Games 3, 4 and 5 on the road to get to the World Series.
“We've been there. We've gone there, and we won three in a row at one point in the playoffs not too long ago, and we faced some great pitchers, right? We celebrated there,” said Cora. “So like I said, our goal is to go [Friday] and put together a whole baseball game, win and move on to the next one, and if we do the same thing [Saturday], we'll be in the World Series.”
While that seems unlikely, you can’t put it past these Red Sox, who have the right demeanor to handle this moment.
“Don't get too emotionally high or emotionally low,” said Martinez. “I mean, that's kind of the way I play. I kind of take pride in that because the emotion is what wears you out -- that up, that down. Try to just maintain the same equal presence every time you go out there. To us, it's just another game. It's a must-win, like the Wild Card Game. It's a situation our team is familiar with. It should be fun.”