By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I felt pretty bad for the fans at Fenway Park on Saturday night.
It’s not that they shelled out hundreds of dollars and had to sit in the blistering cold to cheer on the home team. That was a choice they all made of their own volition. It’s that they showed up to the park with a tangible level of energy, a group that was very much feeling the moment and was eager — desperate, even — to have something to cheer for.
Through the entirety of the first inning, in fact, just about everyone from about the first-base dugout all the way down the right field stood at their seats, something you may see in overtime of an NHL game, or a particularly tense moment of an NFL game, but not often for the first inning of a baseball game. But that was the energy level inside Fenway Park.
They all sat down after Xander Bogaerts grounded into an inning-ending double play to end that first inning, though. And they had little reason to cheer for a while after that.
Chris Sale looked very ordinary, laboring through just four innings before exiting stage left. Meanwhile Justin Verlander looked like the Terminator, mowing down 10 consecutive Red Sox batters to effectively take the crowd out of it.
Those fans were reawakened when Verlander suddenly lost his command in the fifth, leading to the Red Sox tying the game. But after that, the Astros did what they always do. They came through with some tough at-bats and a clutch single to score the run that was needed to regain the lead. They did that on a soft liner from Carlos Correa on a high 100 mph fastball from Joe Kelly. And they never relinquished it.
Then, just to really twist the knife, the Astros went ahead and hit two homers in the ninth to turn the whole game into a laugher.
It was impolite.
In any event, with the Red Sox now trailing in the series, and with the worrisome prospect of David Price getting the ball for Game 2 roughly 19 hours after the conclusion of Game 1, folks are naturally starting to feel some apprehension about the ultimate fate of these 108-win Red Sox.
Allow me to interject, briefly, to say that perhaps things aren’t quite so bad.
Yes, that was an utter dud. Registering a grand total of three hits in an entire baseball game is not an inspiring showcase. And yes, Price has had his issues, going back years, and they don’t appear to be solvable. That might be a problem.
But if the Red Sox really take a close look at Game 1, they can sit back and say with honesty that the defending champs ain’t so bad.
First, you can throw out the ninth inning. Brandon Workman won’t be pitching an inning of great consequence this series. The decision to not use Craig Kimbrel in a 3-2 game for the top of the ninth was most likely tied to keeping him ready for Game 2. (If Price doesn’t last long, perhaps Kimbrel will be called upon to record more than three outs.)
Then you can look at how and why everything happened. Verlander presented a daunting challenge for four innings, but as soon as he showed a vulnerability, the Red Sox capitalized. Granted, the two-run fifth didn’t came via big hits or home runs, but the Red Sox were patient and took what Verlander gave them. In this case, it was three walks and a wild pitch.
And if you can crack the armor on Verlander, you can crack the armor on anyone.
Then there’s the other side of the equation. Yes, Sale was masterfully underwhelming on Saturday night. His control was off, and thus, he was off. Looking ahead to later in the series (and perhaps beyond, if you’re a true optimist), you might have some worry. But even with that being understood, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Sale and Joe Kelly give up zero of their combined three runs.
The Astros’ first run came gift-wrapped from Sale, after he walked the No. 7 hitter, hit the No. 8 batter with a pitch, and then walked the No. 9 hitter. The hit that scored the two runs was a ball that realistically should have been gloved by a big league third baseman. Eduardo Nunez just didn’t make the play.
To be fair to Nunez, the ball came off the bat at 102 mph, so making the play wasn’t quite as easy as it looked to be on slow-motion, high-definition replay. Nevertheless, he should have made it. And had he done that, the Astros would have been kept off the board in the second.
Likewise, Houston’s third run should have never scored either. Once again, it was Nunez’s fault. After Kelly plunked Alex Bregman with a 100 mph heater, Nunez botched what looked to be a surefire double play ball. Nunez dropped the head-high chopper, failing to even get one out on a grounder that should have produced two.
Kelly rallied to retire the next two batters, but after getting squeezed on a couple of calls by home plate umpire James Hoye, he left a 100 mph fastball a little bit over the plate on a 3-1 count to Carlos Correa. The Astros’ shortstop put forth an impressive display of hitting by muscling that pitch out to shallow center to drive home what proved to be the game-winning run.
The one real area of concern came in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the score still suck at 3-2. Lance McCullers entered in relief, and he faced a pretty tall task: Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, J.D. Martinez. It ended up being a non-competitive inning; 13 pitches, three outs, two strikeouts. Game over — essentially.
All of that sounds bad and seems bad and might be bad. I get it. But really, if you watched the way this Astros team overwhelmed Cleveland in the ALDS, and if you watched their powerful rise last October, you know what they’re capable of doing to teams. They’re able to take close games and turn them into jokes. (Against top-flight relievers, not Workman.)
The Red Sox, though, didn’t really experience that fate on Saturday. They didn’t play their best game on Saturday — not even close — yet they were still trailing by just one run entering the final inning. Had Nunez fielded two ground balls (one simple, one not so much) then it’s probably a two-run lead for the home team entering the ninth.
While, obviously, the “ifs” and “maybes” and “almosts” will never change the final score of Game 1, they do serve to show that if the Red Sox can clean up their own basic miscues, they can hang with this Houston team. Will they be good enough to actually win the series? We’ll have to wait and see about that.
But for now, as fans left the ballpark likely feeling similarly to how they felt after Anabel Sanchez pitched six no-hit innings in a 1-0 Game 1 victory in the 2013 ALCS at Fenway, the Red Sox at least prevented Houston from delivering that famous haymaker. If they can do that again, and maybe a few times after that, it ought to be a very interesting baseball series.
That’s all provided David Price puts up a respectable performance on Sunday. If he doesn’t, well, then forget everything we just talked about. If he can’t do that, then there will be no fans to feel bad for at Fenway Park next weekend.