By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox were much more successful in 2021 than anybody could have imagined or expected them to be. They also kind of blew it in the ALCS.

Both things can be true. And they are.

After the Boston bats went silent for the third consecutive game, the Red Sox’ season is now over. Just four days removed from a complete and total romp at Fenway Park in Game 3, the Red Sox let their 2-1 series lead — and their World Series dreams — evaporate in rapid fashion.

The Astros, of course, deserve a healthy share of credit for making that happen. They’ve been the class of the American League for five years, they led MLB in runs scored and batting average, and they had the fourth-best team ERA in the American League this season. Beating them would, obviously, be quite the challenge. There’d be no shame in losing to them in a hard-fought series.

But the lingering disappointment in Boston after this season doesn’t come from not beating the Astros. It comes from not even competing with them over the final three games.

While Boston’s pitching held up reasonably well for seven innings in Game 4, for five innings in Game 5, and for eight innings in Game 6, the offense completely disappeared.

After Xander Bogaerts launched a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 4, the Red Sox had scored 26 runs in the first 27 innings of the series.

That’s 26 runs, 27 innings.

They scored one run in the 26 innings that followed.

Obviously, a pace of a run per inning was never going to be sustainable. But to go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, to give away outs and innings with non-competitive at-bats, to chase pitches well out of the zone, to fail to hit away from the shift, and to basically lose track of everything that brought them success in Games 2 and 3? Much of that could have been avoided.

The offensive woes, though, are quite obvious. Two other critical mistakes in this series make it feel like a lost opportunity for Boston’s baseball team.

The first: Game 4, top of the eighth, Red Sox leading 2-1, Garrett Whitlock on for his second inning of relief. The rookie reliever has been a revelation for Boston all year, but his first pitch to Jose Altuve — a postseason home run monster — was directly in Altuve’s wheelhouse:

Garrett Whitlock to Jose Altuve (Screen shot from Baseball Savant)

Altuve did not miss that one:

The Red Sox obviously caught a tough break in the top of the ninth, when Laz Diaz’s alternate strike zone robbed Nathan Eovaldi of what should have been the inning-ending strikeout, but that one pitch to Altuve in that one moment really changed everything about that game — and, in turn, the series.

The other mistake was not a physical one but one of misguided faith. When manager Alex Cora got five runs of one-run ball out of Chris Sale, he should have known he had been given a gift from the baseball gods. This is not the Cy Young version of Sale — not right now, 12 starts into his return from Tommy John surgery. This Chris Sale may still have the guts and guile to do what he did in the fourth inning of Game 5, but he just doesn’t have the stuff to get through six innings against a potent lineup. (He twice could barely get through five innings against the Orioles in September, and he lasted just 2.1 innings in the must-win regular-season finale.)

But instead of treating that five-inning outing like a winning lottery ticket, Cora played with fire, pushed his luck, and sent what he believed to be his ace back to the mound for the sixth. A Kyle Schwarber error didn’t help, but Sale gave up a double to Yordan Alvarez — who had already homered and singled off the lefty, and a 1-0 deficit expanded to a 3-0 deficit. Sale had to come out of the game, and the Astros led 6-0 shortly thereafter.

From a one-run game with a fired-up Fenway behind them, to a 6-0 deficit and a stunning lack of energy for the Red Sox. It happened quickly, and they never recovered.

With baseball, no theoretical can ever be known. But with Tanner Houck pitching effectively for his first two innings in Game 6, it does still feel as though he could have gotten the Red Sox into the late innings in Game 5.

Of course (of course!) it’s all moot if the offense doesn’t show up. And it didn’t. Rafael Devers hit a solo homer with the Red Sox trailing 7-0 in the seventh of Game 5, the lone run of the entire game.

The most significant play of Game 5, according to win probability, came in the bottom of the fifth inning. With the Red Sox trailing 1-0, Hunter Renfroe stepped to the plate with two on and nobody out. He got ahead in the count 2-0.

Then he grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. (Renfroe batted .063 in the ALCS.)

It somehow got worse in Game 6.

Facing elimination, and facing a pitcher they wrecked just six days prior, the Red Sox mustered just two hits in Game 6. Two hits. No runs. After Eovaldi dug deep to pitch out of a jam with three strikeouts in the fourth inning, the Red Sox followed it up with two terrible at-bats from Christian Arroyo (his second such at-bat of the night) and Renfroe.

The Red Sox went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position, matching their numbers from Game 5. From Game 4-6, Red Sox hitters went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position. The Astros went 12-for-32 with runners in scoring position in those same games.

In both of the Red Sox’ final two losses, they failed to gain any emotional lifts from gutsy starting pitching performances, allowing Houston to eventually pull away.

Nathan Eovaldi in Game 6, Chris Sale in Game 5 (Photos by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

The season ended, really, with a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play in the seventh inning of Game 6.

But then again … the fact that Travis Shaw — who was waived by the Brewers in August after rehabbing in Triple-A — was at bat in that crucial situation shows that the Red Sox’ roster wasn’t quite at a championship level. This was a game that featured Shaw, Danny Santana, and Bobby Dalbec pinch-hitting appearances. It was a team that leaned heavily on Jose Iglesias (released by the Angeles in September) just to make the playoffs at all. It was a team that, even if that Game 5 homer to Altuve had not been served up on a platter, wouldn’t have a real closer entering to finish the game in the ninth. They didn’t have a real first baseman or a real leadoff hitter, for that matter.

Asking this team to win a championship would probably be unfair. Asking them to beat the Astros might be a little too much, too.

But asking for the Red Sox to at least compete against a team they had outscored 25-13 through three games? Expecting more offense against a depleted pitching staff that was missing its ace and had an overworked bullpen through four games? That’s not too much.

The Red Sox may not have been good enough top to bottom to beat the Astros. But they were good enough to compete with them. Over the final 27 innings, they failed to show it.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.