BOSTON – In order to advance to the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros weathered their best starting pitcher giving up a go-ahead home run in relief, survived a relief onslaught from the Boston Red Sox’s best starting pitcher to tie the game and scored the winning run off the best relief pitcher in the AL. The Astros’ slogan, plastered all around their home clubhouse in capital letters, is: EARN IT. Suffice to say they did.
Their 5-4 victory in Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox earned them the first semifinal spot in the 2017 postseason and completed a madcap Game 4 that saw John Farrell ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the second inning – perhaps his final act as Red Sox manager – followed with Justin Verlander and Chris Sale joining the game out of the bullpen and ended with Ken Giles shaking off a ninth-inning inside-the-park home run to finish off the Red Sox like his counterpart, Craig Kimbrel, couldn’t the Astros.
After Sale had thrown four brilliant relief innings, Red Sox bench coach Gary DiSarcina sent him back out for the eighth. Going on three days’ rest, Sale left an 88-mph changeup over the heart of the plate, and Alex Bregman deposited it over the Green Monster to tie the game at 3. Three batters later, with a runner on first, DiSarcina pulled Sale and went to Kimbrel. He walked George Springer, then allowed a single to Josh Reddick, which scored pinch runner Cameron Maybin and put Houston ahead 4-3.
The Astros immediately went to Giles, who came in after 2 2/3 innings of relief from Verlander. With a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning, manager A.J. Hinch had gone to Verlander – his presumed Game 5 starter – knowing his bullpen was overworked and left-hander Dallas Keuchel could start a potential deciding game on full rest. Coming into Monday, Verlander had faced 10,938 batters over the course of his 13-year career. Every one of those had been as a starting pitcher.
This being October, this being 2017, this being the year baseball decided roles for pitchers were simply a construct, rookie Andrew Benintendi was the 10,939th hitter faced in Verlander’s career and first in relief. And when he yanked a two-run home run down the right-field line, the second-guessing of Hinch began.
It continued until Bregman’s home run bailed out Hinch and Verlander and left the 37,305 at Fenway Park despondent. Earlier, following Benintendi’s home run, they had joined in a communal, spirited, mocking chant. “JUS-TIN! JUS-TIN! JUS-TIN!” they yelled at Verlander in unison. Verlander responded by getting eight outs without allowing another hit, setting up for the heroics of Bregman, Reddick and pinch hitter Carlos Beltran, whose two-out pinch-hit double off the Monster in the eighth gave Giles an insurance run it turned out Houston needed.
Rookie Rafael Devers, the first batter in the ninth, launched a ball to center field, and it caromed off the wall and away from a leaping Springer into a barren area in center. Devers, not exactly a burner, huffed his way around first, second, third and made it home without a throw to cut the Red Sox’s deficit to one run. It would stay there.
All told, it was a beautiful little baseball game, taking the great flourish of the 2017 postseason – starters pitching in relief – adding to it the gravitas of big names and topping that with the drama of one late-inning comeback and a second that wasn’t quite.
Whether it’s the swan song for Farrell, who has led the Red Sox to back-to-back AL East titles, remains to be seen. After winning a World Series in his first year as Red Sox manager in 2013, Boston followed with a pair of last-place finishes before its recent success. Though Farrell remains under contract for 2018, his status after another first-round exist is unclear at best.