ALCS Game 5: Goodbye, Astros … For Now, Anyway

Alex Bregman was right. This year's Astros were a better team than last year's World Series-winning model. The bad news is that this year's better model Astros ran into this year's better-than-that Red Sox and lost the American League Championship Series without winning once in their own house. Something nobody expected of this year's Astros.

Including the Astros themselves.

"The ball's got to bounce your way in the postseason," said Bregman, the Astros' third baseman. "It's tough, and we'll learn from it. Everyone in here will have a little bit of an edge to play with next year, a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, knowing that we believe we should have been back-to-back champions."

Bregman should know more than he cares to know about the ball bouncing your way. He hit what might have been a Game 4-winning 3-run sinking liner to left for which Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi, on the run from the edge of the track from the moment Bregman made contact, dove like an Olympic swimmer to catch just a sliver before it hit the ground, sliding an extra five feet before popping up to his feet to celebrate the surreal 8-6 Red Sox win.

Every Astro had every reason to believe they'd send the set back to Fenway Park going into Game 5. Weren't they going to face David Price, the arguable worst pitcher in postseason history, and have their way with the left-hander who's been great so often in the regular seasons but disappears during the postseasons? Hadn't Price been a little on the lucky side to survive long enough in Game 2 for the Red Sox to end up winning that one?

Nobody expected Price to go out Thursday night and tie the Astros up with a changeup he threw over 30 percent of the time, to such deadly effect as eleven swings and misses and the consummation of 4 of his 9 strikeouts in 6 shutout innings, leaving the game with a 4-0 lead.

"I know there was a lot of people thinking he wasn't going to perform," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, last year's Astros bench coach, now the first manager ever to win the pennant on his birthday. "But I knew he was a good matchup for them. Last year he pitched great against the Astros. This year he did the same, too. He was amazing tonight, he was outstanding. I'm very happy for him."

"One of the most amazing days I've had on a baseball field," said Price.

Nobody expected Justin Verlander to look off enough that J.D. Martinez could rock him for a solo homer into the Crawford Box seats in the third or that Rafael Devers, playing third for the Red Sox with Eduardo Nunez nursing a twisted ankle since Game 3, would send a 3-run bomb to the other end of the Crawford Boxes in the sixth.

And boy were those off script for the Red Sox, whose penchant for two-out scoring helped make this ALCS such a washout for the Astros. Martinez's shot came with one out; Devers's, with none, after Mitch Moreland led off with a double off both the left field wall and Astros left fielder Tony Kemp's glove, and Ian Kinsler pushed Moreland to third with a base hit immediately following.

The Astros' only answer Thursday night was Marwin Gonzalez's solo to the Crawfords off Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes. They left six men on base and had only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position, Gonzalez ending the fourth with a swinging strikeout right after Yuli Gurriel's 2-out double.

And none of the foregoing had anything to do with Joe West, the umpire whose out call on Jose Altuve's bid for a 2-run homer in the first inning of Game 4 — ruling Altuve out on grounds that a fan might have touched Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts's glove as Betts tried for and almost made a take-back catch — probably made him Public Enemy Number One in Houston for most of eternity. They should probably demand an explanation, too, from the security guard who obstructed the possible best camera view of the play from the right side of the stands.

"The American League goes through us," said Verlander in spring training. "Obviously the old saying, to be the best, you've got to beat the best, and I think we proved we were last year."

But they were better this year when all was said and done. And the Red Sox just went right through them. Verlander took a sterling 4-1/1.21 ERA in postseason elimination games into Game 5 and came up three bucks short.

"It's always hard," Verlander said after it was over. "We had a good season. Didn't end up where we wanted. We lost to a great team. I said it last year: Playoffs, it's flip a coin sometimes. It's whoever's playing the best baseball at the time. We were dealing with a ton of injuries, as you could tell, but the guys battled, and I feel like we gave them a good fight. It just wasn't enough at the end. They played great baseball."

Indeed. Jose Altuve's knee looked ugly enough for one broadcaster meeting him before the game to describe as resembling something with a grapefruit shoved into it. Carlos Correa continued shaking away back trouble. Lance McCullers, Jr. was moved to the bullpen after missing most of August with a forearm injury. Charlie Morton — the almost inexplicable Game 4 starter, who hadn't pitched since 30 September and looked like a '39 Ford left outdoors for eight straight winters — was troubled by shoulder problems most of the season's second half.

But the Red Sox did play great baseball, at least after a Game 1 in which they looked like the Keystone Kops with 10 pitching walks, three hit batsmen, and their only 2 runs in the game scoring on a bases-loaded walk and a wild pitch.

The Astros had no way to stop Jackie Bradley, Jr.'s postseason slump-busting mayhem, from that violent 3-run double off the Green Monster in Game 2 to that monstrous eighth-inning grand slam to put Game 3 out of the Astros' reach, not to mention the 2-run bomb he hit in Game 4. It earned Bradley the ALCS Most Valuable Player award and he deserved it. If you wanted a microcosm of the Red Sox's ability to turn two outs into run-scoring fodder, be advised that all nine of Bradley's ALCS runs batted in came with 2 outs.

It's always disappointing to lose," said George Springer, the Astros's center fielder and last year's World Series MVP, who was just about the only Astro who hit like a postseason MVP in the ALCS when all was said and done. "It's a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes you have to give credit to the other guys and understand that they got the big hit in the big situation, made the big pitch, made a big play. That's the game. You put it behind you, let it soak in for a few days, and you're on to next year already."

The Astros became the first team since the 2005 Angels to lose three straight home games in an ALCS.

"It sucks. This is a press conference you never really prepare for," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch facing reporters after the game. "I don't know the right words, the right tone, the right content. I mean, it's an extremely disappointed clubhouse because we want to keep playing. We feel like we set the bar exactly where it should be around here, which — the World Series is the only thing that was going to make this team feel like we accomplished much."

They have an excellent chance of accomplishing it in 2019. The core of the club — Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel, Verlander, and Gerrit Cole, not to mention most of their bullpen — will remain together. They may lose Gonzalez, Morton, and Dallas Keuchel to free agency, but two prospects about to come forth, outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley, should be enough to atone for those losses if losses they prove to be. They may not necessarily even have to add a player to be the team to beat in their division for openers.

But with or without one dubious first-inning Game 4 call, the Astros got out-played by the Red Sox where and when it mattered most. But it was wonderful for them to be defending World Series champions for the first time in their franchise history.

"You don't win 108 games by some fluke," said Red Sox infielder Brock Holt, who made his own postseason history by becoming the first to hit for the cycle in any postseason when he did it against the Yankees during a 16-1 blowout. "We are a good team. We are a tough team to beat." The Astros just learned that one the hard way. Either the Dodgers or the Brewers, striking for Game 6 of their National League Championship Series, will be tested just as arduously in the World Series.

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