HOUSTON -- Red Sox manager Alex Cora knew the risk that came with tabbing Chris Sale as the starter for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros.
Entering Friday night, Sale had recorded a total of 10 outs over his previous two starts. Cora knew the possibility of another short outing was high. That’s exactly what transpired: The left-hander was pulled after just 2 2/3 innings at 61 pitches, allowing one run on five hits and one walk in the Red Sox's 5-4 series-opening loss at Minute Maid Park.
With Boston holding a 3-1 lead at the time of Sale’s early departure, the task was daunting. Its relievers needed to find a way to hold down a dangerous Astros lineup and record 19 outs. With a well-rested bullpen, Cora liked his club’s chances.
“We feel good about our pitching. We do,” Cora said before the game. “Obviously, it's a challenge because of who [the Astros] are offensively, but when you get to this stage, you are doing something right. We got our starters lined up for Games 1 and 2, and we got our guys in the bullpen, so we'll see where it takes us.”
The direction the bullpen took was on a tightrope of pitching in and out of danger. Early on, Red Sox relievers often were able to strand Houston runners. Later, they didn’t necessarily break, but they bent a little too far off the path.
Though each late home run was a tough blow, the run that loomed largest was the one allowed by Hirokazu Sawamura in the bottom of the eighth on a sacrifice fly by Altuve that pushed Houston’s lead to two runs. That run provided the Astros a necessary cushion after Kiké Hernández capped another spectacular postseason game at the plate by leading off the ninth with his second homer of the night, a solo blast off Ryan Pressly.
“It's hard,” Cora said of the difficulty of asking his bullpen to cover so many innings. “But we've done it before, so we just are going to keep doing that. Of course, we want our starters to go deeper in the game, but we feel like today we were very close to pulling this off, pitching-wise.
“They took advantage of two pitches. Altuve on the slider, and Correa on the changeup.”
Just because the Red Sox were aware of a possible short night from Sale didn't make it any easier for him to swallow. In Sale’s mind, this loss fell largely on him for his inability to go deep.
“That’s where my job comes into play a little bit,” Sale said. “I wish I would have gone a little bit longer. I have to get more outs. There is no way around that. When you’re asking your bullpen to go out there and throw seven innings of zeroes, that’s a lot.”
It wasn’t seven innings of zeroes. But it was a valiant effort. The seven relievers out of Boston’s bullpen combined to allow four runs in 5 1/3 innings.
“I think they did an incredible job, anyways, regardless of the outcome,” Sale said. “I just put a little too much on their plate tonight. That’s on me.”
Part of why Boston gambled on starting Sale in Game 1 is the guy who is starting Game 2 on Saturday afternoon. Nathan Eovaldi has allowed just three runs with 16 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings this postseason.
“I don’t think there’s another guy on the planet I’d rather be pitching tomorrow than Nate,” said Sale. “You look at what he’s done this year. You look at his postseason resume. The guy stacks up with anybody. We’ve got the right guy on the mound tomorrow, and that’s all we can say."
Now, more than ever, the Red Sox will be counting on Eovaldi to provide some much-needed length.