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Astros Take Thrilling ALCS Opener 5-4 Over Red Sox

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After trailing much of the night, Houston broke through with home runs by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa to steal a victory and the series lead.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It was another long, back and forth affair for the Astros on Friday night, as neither starting pitcher finished the third inning, each team used most of their bullpen, and the lead changed multiple times.

Both starters in the game, Framber Valdez and Chris Sale, struggled with command, allowing both teams to generate some early offense. Red Sox center fielder Kiké Hernandez started what would become a big night with a leadoff single in the first which Valdez was able to erase with a double play ball, but the inning quickly turned back into a scoring threat when the next three hitters reached. Valdez got Hunter Renfroe to fly out softly to end the opportunity, but the jam was a sign of things to come during his outing.

The Astros quickly answered by creating some traffic of their own thanks to a leadoff walk from Jose Altuve and a one out base knock from Alex Bregman, and the pair would both advance on a wild pitch from Sale with Yordan Alvarez at bat. Alvarez responded with a fly ball that scored Altuve, putting the Astros on the board first at 1-0 before Carlos Correa grounded out to end the inning.

In the top of the second, Valdez was able to cut through the bottom of third of the Red Sox order with apparent ease, recording a 1-2-3 frame. Yuli Gurriel managed a one out single off of Sale in the home half, and center fielder Chas McCormick advanced him to scoring position with a first pitch knock of his own. Things really got dicey for Sale when he grazed Martin Maldonado with a 1-0 offering, loading the bases with just one out. He was able to reach back for a big strikeout of Jose Altuve to create a lefty on lefty matchup versus Michael Brantley with two down, which ended when Brantley struck a ball that looked like it might drop in for multiple RBIs, but was snared by Hernandez in center.

Unsatisfied with his huge defensive play, Hernandez followed it up by leading off the third inning with a crush job home run to tie the game. Valdez rebounded to force a groundout from Kyle Schwarber next, but then walked Xander Bogaerts and surrendered a hit to Rafael Devers to create another jam. It looked briefly as if Framber would escape, as J.D. Martinez hit a tailor made double play ball up the middle on a 1-0 count, but the ball took a bad hop on Jose Altuve who had it ricochet off of his glove, scoring Bogaerts.

The bleeding continued when the next batter, Hunter Renfroe, laced a double down the third base line to score Devers and make the score 3-1. Dusty Baker left Valdez in to face the lefty Alex Verdugo, and Framber came through with a strikeout for the second out of the inning. At this point, Baker lifted him in favor of Yimi Garcia, who came up with a big strikeout of Christian Arroyo to prevent the game from getting out of hand.

Sale ran into his own trouble in the third. He retired Alex Bregman on a groundout to start the inning, but then allowed a pair of hits to Alvarez and Correa to put a man in scoring position. Facing a similar dilemma to Baker in the top of half of the inning, Alex Cora left Sale in to face the tough lefty Kyle Tucker, whom he struck out, before calling to the pen and Adam Ottavino. The righty reliever induced a groundout from Yuli Gurriel, and the Red Sox retained their 3-1 lead heading to the fourth.

With the starters out of the game, the pace of the contest picked up. Cristian Javier entered to pitch for the Astros, and came out throwing very well, working around a one out double off the bat of- who else- Kiké Hernandez in an otherwise clean frame. Ottavino remained in the game for the Sox, and responded with a 1-2-3 inning of his own to maintain the lead. Baker left a cruising Javier in for a second frame, which paid off in spades when El Reptil retired the heart of the Boston lineup in order.

With the Astros 2-3-4 hitters coming up, including two lefties, Cora went to his top southpaw in Josh Taylor for the bottom of the fifth. Things got off to an inauspicious start for Taylor when he surrendered a leadoff hit in a left on left matchup, but he responded by getting Alex Bregman to fly out before striking out Yordan Alvarez. Regardless, Cora elected to replace him with Ryan Brasier once he had satisfied the three batter minimum, and the righty came in to face Carlos Correa. The shortstop rose to the occasion with a big base hit, but Brasier escaped when Kyle Tucker lined out on the first pitch of his at bat to end the inning.

There may have been an argument for leaving in Javier for the sixth, but Dusty opted to go with Phil Maton instead. The oft-wild righty started his outing by walking Alex Verdugo, and the Sox decided to have 8-hole hitter Christian Arroyo lay down a bunt with nobody out. He dropped one just to the right of home plate which was promptly scooped up by Maldonado who tagged Arroyo before contemplating a throw to second. Arroyo was called safe on the field for some reason, but that was quickly overturned by replay for the first out. Maton then induced a groundout from Christian Vazquez on a payoff pitch before doing something no other Astro pitcher was able to do- retire Kiké Hernandez- to end the inning.

In the bottom of the sixth with a two run lead, the Red Sox were eager to apply pressure and close out a win, prompting Cora to go with relief ace Tanner Houck to face the bottom of the order. The move went according to plan at first, as Houck was able to force a popout from leadoff man Yuli Gurriel, but Chas McCormick ensured that the lineup would turn over in the inning with a base hit up the middle. Maldonado followed with a lazy flyout, bringing Jose Altuve to the plate to represent the tying run. Houck grooved a first pitch fastball over the heart of the plate, and Altuve promptly pounced for a game tying two run shot. Houck rebounded by striking out Michael Brantley, but the damage was done and the game had a new feel at this point.

Now with some real momentum, Dusty Baker boldly went to Brooks Raley in the 7th inning to face a pair of tough lefties. The first, Kyle Schwarber, cued a weakly hit single into the soft side of the shift, but Raley was able to recover for a pivotal strikeout of right handed Xander Bogaerts before facing Rafael Devers in a key spot. Raley got ahead in the count before eventually forcing a weak flyout, and with the three batter minimum satisfied, Baker went to Ryne Stanek to face J.D. Martinez. Stanek successfully executed his pitches, eventually forcing a groundout to end the inning.

Cora made the interesting decision to lift Houck for the 7th, instead opting to go with flamethrower Hansel Robles out of the pen. Robles had his fastball working, sitting in the upper 90s and inducing plenty of swings and misses, and quickly recorded two outs in the inning. He then managed to get ahead of Carlos Correa, and looked to be cruising towards a quick outing, but he made a crucial mistake in a 2-2 count, hanging a changeup badly, and Correa quickly deposited it deep into the left field seats before giving the crowd one of the more memorable pimp jobs of the 2021 season, giving the Astros the lead back at 4-3. Robles rebounded to get Kyle Tucker and end the inning, but the wind had already left the Red Sox’ sails.

Six outs away from victory, Dusty decided to remove Stanek in favor of the up and down Kendall Graveman. The hard throwing righty looked to be on his way to another adventure of an outing early when he went to a 3 ball count on pinch hitter Danny Santana, but eventually ended the long battle with a top shelf breaking ball for a swinging strikeout. He then forced a weak flyout from Alex Verdugo for the second out, but a Christian Arroyo chopper then went off the glove of Alex Bregman to put a man aboard with two outs. Cora went to a pinch hitter, Travis Shaw, in favor of the catcher’s spot, who promptly drove a ball deep to right field that looked as though it might give Boston the lead back. It died on the warning track however, and Kyle Tucker put it away for the last out, sending the game to the bottom of the eighth.

Rather than burning closer Garrett Whitlock with a one run deficit, Cora brought in Hirokazu Sawamura, who quickly showed difficulty throwing strikes. Leadoff man Yuli Gurriel drew a walk, which McCormick followed with a base hit to move him into scoring position. Up to bat next, Maldonado, attempting to bunt, was hit by a pitch for the second time on the night to load the bases. That brought Altuve back to the dish with a chance for more heroics, and while he didn’t come up with a put away grand slam, he managed a solidly struck ball to center that scored Yuli Gurriel as Hernandez’ throw one hopped to home. Cora then opted for left handed Martin Perez to face Brantley, who hit into a double play to end the inning, but not before the Astros secured a key insurance run.

The value of Altuve’s sac fly was put on full display immediately, as Hernandez greeted closer Ryan Pressly with a deep leadoff home run high above the Crawford Boxes to cut the lead to one. While the moonshot spiked Astros fans’ blood pressure momentarily, the tension was quickly dissipated as Pressly retired the next three batters to secure a thrilling victory. The win puts the Astros in excellent position going forward in the series, as they’ll get to keep the pressure on with Luis Garcia in a home start against a highly taxed Boston bullpen tomorrow. Game 2 will begin at 3:20 CT, with Nate Eovaldi opposing the Astros rookie righthander.