Saturday, October 20, 2018

Red Sox biggest postseason concern exposed: Can pitching compete with Astros?

Ted Berg, USA TODAY Sports
Published 2:31 a.m. ET Oct. 14, 2018

BOSTON — October baseball has a way of blinding us to regular-season realities.

We can understand, rationally, that the outcome of one individual baseball game is never reliably predictive and that great teams and players can typically be counted on to perform as such, but still pick apart the results from an isolated contest and extrapolate from them bold, specious conclusions about how the rest of the postseason will shake out.

One game is only one game.

The Boston Red Sox have up to six more ahead of them in this year’s American League Championship Series. But in that one game – Game 1 – it became awful hard to watch the Boston club and envision the one that won 108 games in the regular season, and harder still to see the Red Sox as anything other than flat-out doomed in this series.

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Though still close entering the ninth inning, the game unraveled into a sloppy mess late, with the Houston Astros’ convincing 7-2 victory underscoring what could be a serious issue for these Red Sox moving forward: Their pitching, or the sudden lack thereof.

Chris Sale, Boston’s ace and one of the game’s most dominant starters, struggled with his control and saw his pitch count escalate early. After two quick outs to start the second, Sale walked a batter, hit a batter, then walked another batter to load the bases. George Springer’s two-run single gave Houston an early lead.

“I lost command,” Sale said after the game. “I was kind of out there searching for it. You just do the best you can to corral it, and limit the damage and get out of there as quickly as possible. It’s one of those things that happens. You get out there, sometimes, and you’re battling yourself. That was definitely the case.”

Sale left the game after four innings, with 86 pitches already on his ledger. Outside of the abbreviated starts he made in September while working his way back from the shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of August, Saturday was Sale’s shortest outing of the season.

“It was a struggle for him,” said manager Alex Cora. “He only commanded the fastball glove-side for the righties. He didn’t find his slider until the fourth.”

Joe Kelly relieved Sale, threw a scoreless fifth, then opened the sixth by plunking Alex Bregman with a 1-2 fastball to give the Astros a leadoff baserunner. Bregman would come around to score thanks in part to an error by Red Sox third baseman Eduardo Nunez, but Kelly was hardly sharp, throwing more balls than strikes across his 1⅔-inning stint Saturday.

Matt Barnes followed and showed more of the same. Barnes did not allow a run in 1⅓ innings, but walked two batters and, like Kelly, threw more balls than strikes. Ryan Brasier chipped in a clean eighth inning, but walked a batter and also threw more balls than strikes.

The only Red Sox reliever who found the strike zone with more than half his pitches Saturday probably should’ve avoided it: Brandon Workman, called upon to keep the game close in the top of the ninth, allowed four runs on three hits – including a homer – and two walks in only ⅓ inning. Heath Hembree bailed out Workman and pitched the final ⅔, but also walked a batter in the process.

“(Workman) didn’t execute his pitches, and they made him pay,” Cora said.

Entering the series, the Red Sox’ pitching staff looked like a potential concern, but only in comparison to the Astros’ historically good one. Boston pitchers, after all, finished the regular season with the American League’s third-best staff ERA – trailing only the Astros and Rays — and even their currently beleaguered bullpen ranked fourth in the circuit.

Entering Game 2, the Red Sox’s pitching staff looks like a glaring weakness. With Sale now likely on the shelf until at least Game 4, with Kelly, Barnes and Workman likely limited by their fairly long and shaky outings Saturday, and with even some question marks surrounding closer Craig Kimbrel after he couldn’t find the strike zone in Game 4 of the ALDS, what the Sox need is a long, strong performance from their starting pitcher Sunday.

What the Sox have is David Price, a pitcher with a 0-9 record and a 6.03 ERA in 10 career postseason starts, set to square off with one of the deepest and most powerful lineups in baseball.

Again: The Sox only lost one game Saturday, hardly the full series. It’s a shallow hole they’re in, and only the recent performance of their pitching staff that makes it look cavernous.

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