Why the Astros are well positioned to win ALCS vs. Red Sox despite Houston’s starting pitching woes

Four games in, the American League Championship Series is playing out almost exactly as expected. There have been big innings aplenty and runs are being scored in bunches, and the pitching have been questionable throughout. The Houston Astros won Game 4 on Tuesday and it was far more competitive than the 9-3 final score would lead you to believe. The series is tied 2-2.

“This is enjoying baseball as if you are a child,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after Game 4. “This is one of the great things about baseball. When you’re dead in the water and things aren’t going good, and then all of a sudden boom, boom, boom, and you got seven runs, and that’s what they’ve been doing to us this whole series, and we’re capable of doing that as well.”  

A pivotal moment in Game 4 came in the top of the ninth inning, when Nathan Eovaldi’s 1-2 curveball to Jason Castro was called a ball rather than a strike. A called strike would have ended the inning. Instead, the at-bat continued and Castro drove in the go-ahead run with a single. The Astros then piled on another six runs to blow the game open. The pitch in question:

Arguing that pitch should have been called a strike isn’t a hill worth dying on. It’s a borderline pitch — pitches in similar locations were called a strike 23 percent of the time this season — and it was an elevated curveball that was a ball out of Eovaldi’s hand until the very last moment. Also, he missed his spot. Whenever the catcher has to reach like that, you’re less likely to get the call.

“I got to take a look. A lot of people thought it was a strike,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora diplomatically said following Game 4. “… It is what it is. It’s a tough job. I know (home plate umpire Laz Diaz) since our days in Miami. He used to cover our games when I played at the University of Miami. Every Friday he was the man in those games, so it’s a hard job. I understand that.”

Ultimately, the Red Sox did not get the call, and Eovaldi was unable to put Castro away despite still having count leverage. The next six Astros reached base after Castro too, and one borderline pitch in the ninth inning wouldn’t have mattered so much had the Red Sox not gone 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position despite putting men on base in every inning but the seventh.

“There was two strikes. Then we start first-ball hitting,” Baker said after Game 4. “That was a huge base hit by Castro to give us the lead, but we knew with this team that we’re playing we wanted to pad the lead and pad the lead we did, you know what I mean? That one run might not have stood up, especially in this ballpark.”

For the Astros, getting the call on that borderline pitch to Castro was the sort of break they needed to get back into this series, because things have not gone well for them at all. Their starting pitchers have combined to throw 6 2/3 innings in four games and not by design either. These weren’t opener situations. The starters just pitched poorly and had to be pulled early.

Also, up until the ninth inning of Game 4, Houston’s offense had been stagnant. They’d scored only 15 runs in three games plus eight innings up to that point, and their vaunted top of the lineup had been low impact. Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Alex Bregman went a combined 5 for 36 (.139) in Games 1-3. Tough to win when your All-Star top of the order does that.

Altuve, Brantley, and Bregman all played crucial roles in the Game 4 win, however. Bregman swatted a first inning solo home run to get Houston on the board, Altuve tied the game with a solo home run in the eighth inning, then Brantley blew things open with a bases-clearing double in the ninth. Those three had four hits in Game 4 after combining for five hits in Games 1-3.

The Red Sox have thoroughly outplayed the Astros this series. They’ve out-hit them, they’ve certainly out-pitched them, and they’ve out-defended them too. Houston’s pitching has been a mess overall — the bullpen stepped up with 7 2/3 shutout innings in Game 4 — and not until the final inning of Game 4 did the offense really show up. Not a whole lot has gone right for the Astros.

And yet, the series is tied 2-2, and the Astros have regained home field advantage. The ALCS will be decided at Minute Maid Park one way or the other. I won’t say Houston should feel good about their current situation because the pitching is still in shambles, though things are not as dire as they appeared to be even three innings ago. All things considered, it could be much worse.

In Game 5 the Astros will get another crack at Chris Sale, who hasn’t looked quite like himself since returning from Tommy John surgery and lasted only 2 2/3 innings in Game 1. This works both ways — the Red Sox will get another look at Framber Valdez, who also went only 2 2/3 innings in Game 1 — though Valdez isn’t coming off major surgery and is better equipped to provide length.

The Astros need length too. The bullpen has been stretched thin these last four games — Cristian Javier threw three innings and 57 pitches in Game 4 and won’t be available in Game 5 — so getting five innings from Valdez feels like a must. Six innings would be better, seven or more would be ideal. The offense giving him breathing room would help, and the bats did wake up late in Game 4.

Boston has done just about everything better than the Astros and yet the series is tied 2-2, and that has to be at least a little unnerving. The Astros are fortunate to be in this position, no doubt. They are an excellent team though, and Houston can’t possibly get worse starting pitching moving forward or as little from the top of the lineup as they did in Games 1-3, can they?

The Astros have weathered a pretty serious storm the first four games of the ALCS and they come out with home field advantage in a best-of-three series. The Red Sox have been banging the ball all over the yard and their starting pitching was great in Games 2-4, but it wasn’t enough to take a commanding lead in the series. If the Astros win this series, the ninth inning of Game 4 will be viewed as the tipping point in what had been a one-sided series.

“That was a huge win,” Baker said following Game 4. “To tie that up, to guarantee us to go back home and have some more games at home, so we got another big game tomorrow.”

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