By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you can’t believe in this Red Sox team, then you can’t believe in anything.
The 108-win Red Sox heard all year long how their win total was inflated, how their flaws were real, how their bullpen was weak, how their stars lacked postseason experience, how their manager lacked postseason experience, and how they’d more than likely get overwhelmed when facing a team in the playoffs that is actually a competitive bunch.
You might as well have called them the “Yeah, But” Red Sox. Yeah, they’re good, but … .
Well, in the first round, a best-of-five series with no room for error, they headed to the Bronx and outscored the Yankees 20-4 to advance to the ALCS.
There, they met the defending world champions. And when the Houston Astros knocked around ace Chris Sale en route to a 7-2 win in Game 1 — during which manager Alex Cora got himself ejected — it looked like those regular-season forecasts were accurate. The Red Sox were good, but not that good.
All the Red Sox did after that was rally from a 4-2 deficit in Game 2 to win 7-5. They then headed to Houston, home of the champs.
They won Game 3. And they won it 8-2.
They won Game 4, again rallying from a middle-innings deficit, and again fending off the offensive explosions that the Astros are capable of unleashing at any given moment.
And then came Game 5. With Chris Sale unavailable as he recovers from a stomach illness that required a night in the hospital on Sunday, the Red Sox had to turn to David Price. On short rest.
Price’s postseason woes are well-known. A Cy Young winner and a five-time All-Star, the overriding story on Price was that he could not handle the heat in October. It was a well-earned tag.
But you’d never know that watching Price on Thursday night, as he calmly buzzed through the potent Houston lineup for six shutout innings. Along the way, Price recorded a postseason career-high nine strikeouts, working out of the few jams in which he found himself.
And when reliever Matt Barnes faltered in the seventh, Cora knew he could just turn to Nathan Eovaldi, the man who came to the Red Sox at a discount price in late July who allowed just two runs while earning a win in Game 3 just two nights prior.
Eovaldi quickly got the Sox out of the seventh, then made short work of the Astros in the eighth. Craig Kimbrel came on to exorcise his own recent playoff demons, mowing down the Astros with two strikeouts to close out the win.
It was a 4-1 win in Game 5, and a 4-1 win in the series — a blowout, by ALCS standards. The Astros couldn’t compete.
“We have a very good team. I don’t think we learned that. We already knew that. But I think we proved that against another very good team,” Price said in the champagne-socked clubhouse. “For us to do that against the Astros, the defending World Series champs, 100-plus wins that they had, that was pretty cool.”
That was a Game 5 win, of course, that featured J.D. Martinez capitalizing on a missed strike three call by sending the next pitch from Justin Verlander over the fence in left field to break a scoreless tie in the third. That homer broke a streak of 26 consecutive scoreless innings from Verlander in elimination games, a playoff record.
And then came the sixth inning, when consecutive hits from Mitch Moreland and Ian Kinsler set the table for 21-year-old Rafael Devers, who clobbered a first-pitch fastball and sent it over that short porch in left.
When it came down, the Sox led 4-0. That would be all the offense they’d need to punch their ticket to the World Series.
That offensive output was in line with how the series has gone, with an even distribution up and down the lineup. Jackie Bradley Jr. drove in nine runs between Games 2 and 4, scraping the Monster for a three-run double to give the Sox a lead they would not relinquish in Game 2, blasting a grand slam to put Game 3 out of reach and crushing a two-run homer to put the Red Sox on top for good in Game 4.
Bradley, the unlikeliest choice heading into the series, was named ALCS MVP.
Mitch Moreland contributed, despite a bum hamstring. Brock Holt contributed. So did Steve Pearce. And Ian Kinsler. And Christian Vazquez.
That’s all in addition to contributions from the top of the lineup, from Mookie Betts to Andrew Benintendi to Martinez to Xander Bogaerts.
Then there was the defense. The defense was, quite simply, nails. A lesser athlete would have never even been in position to draw a fan interference call in Game 4, and Betts proved his athleticism by making a near-identical catch in Game 5. He also made a game-changing throw to nab Tony Kemp, who tried to snag an extra base in the eighth inning of Game 4.
Not enough can ever be said about Benintendi’s catch to end Game 4. The read, the break, the dive, and the guts to make that diving attempt, knowing that a mistake would have cost his team the game and changed the series — that was special. It should go down in Red Sox lore.
The pitching, the offense, the defense. The starters, and the bullpen. The meat of the order and the bottom of the lineup.
Everyone contributed in this series, a series that had a dire outlook after a rough Game 1 at Fenway Park. A series that ended with the underdog Boston Red Sox — and yes, the 108-win Red Sox were underdogs — ripping off four straight wins over the defending champions.
That was an Astros team that, mind you, decimated the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, outscoring the 2016 AL champs 21-6 in a three-game sweep. The Astros hit the ground running when this series began, carrying themselves with the swagger of a champion. That only intensified after Game 1’s win, and it didn’t wane after losing Game 2. (Check Alex Bregman’s Instagram page for proof.)
The Astros were headed home with the series tied at 1-1. They knew they had home-field advantage. They knew they were the better team.
They knew they had this thing in the bank.
Until they didn’t. Because the Red Sox were better in every facet of the game. Boston is now headed to the World Series.
We don’t yet know their opponent, but right now, it feels as though it doesn’t even matter. These Red Sox are for real, and they certainly won’t ever be underestimated again.