HOUSTON – The bottom of the ninth inning of the best game this October was dizzying. There were two outs. Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel was running on fumes. The bases were loaded. Houston Astros star Alex Bregman stood at the plate. It was a fitting bookend for a dizzying game that started with a controversial call.
On the first pitch, Bregman lined a shot to left field, where Andrew Benintendi charged, laid out, made an incredible catch and put the Red Sox one victory from the World Series. With an 8-6 victory in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday, the Red Sox held on by the razor-thin margin of Benintendi’s glove, which if not for the series would be tied.
Instead, bolstered by the first six-out save of Kimbrel’s career – and Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s daring choice to stick with him instead of going to the warmed-up David Price – Boston is on the cusp of the World Series and the defending-champion Astros needing to win Thursday’s Game 5 and two more in Boston.
The wild, up-and-down 4-hour, 33-minute game began with controversy, as a first-inning ball hit by Astros second baseman Jose Altuve went over the right-field wall – and was ruled an out by umpire Joe West, a call upheld by replay review, much to the consternation of a rowdy 43,277 at Minute Maid Park. While the introduction of instant replay was supposed to remedy situations like those that unfolded in the first, its fallibility was evident with the home run that wasn’t. Though the permutations of the game would have obviously gone far differently had the ruling on Altuve’s swing been different, the fact that the margin of the Astros’ loss matched the number of runs they thought were robbed from them made it sting nevertheless.
With a runner on first, Altuve lifted a Rick Porcello pitch to deep right field. Mookie Betts, the Red Sox’s Gold Glove outfielder, tracked it. He jumped at the wall, and his momentum took his glove over it, where it closed after colliding with a fan. The ball caromed off another fan. West, the longest-tenured umpire in the game, ruled it an out, believing there was fan interference. Replay review neither confirmed nor overturned the call; because there was not clear evidence of what actually happened, the call stood.
Beyond the comedy of the best camera angle being obstructed by a security guard leaning over and blocking the down-the-fence view was unmitigated controversy. The MLB rulebook is clear: If a player goes into the stands attempting to catch a ball, fan interference cannot be called – unless a fan reached over the fence or clearly, intentionally obstructed the play. None of the camera angles available showed a good enough angle to give the umpires at MLB’s replay center in New York a reason to overturn West’s call.
That specter hung over what was otherwise a back-and-forth game that ended a harrowing 30 hours for the Astros, in which they lost Game 3, received absolution from MLB for deploying a credentialed worker to monitor the dugouts of their Division Series opponent and the Red Sox using a cellphone, and then blew two leads in Game 4.
Their first game on Tony Kemp’s fourth-inning home run. The Astros had clawed back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 with an RBI single from Carlos Correa, a George Springer home run and a run-scoring Josh Reddick single. Kemp yanked a ball down the right-field line off Porcello to give Houston a 4-3 lead.
After Xander Bogaerts’ RBI single tied the game, Correa pushed the Astros ahead with another RBI single, part of a standout 3-for-4 game. That lead, too, wouldn’t last an inning.
In the top of the sixth, Jackie Bradley Jr. – who was a hero in Game 2 with a go-ahead three-run double and Game 3 with a game-sealing grand slam – pummeled a first-pitch changeup from rookie Josh James into right field for a two-run homer that put the Red Sox ahead, 6-5. They tacked on runs in the seventh with a bases-loaded walk by Brock Holt and the eighth when J.D. Martinez scored Betts on a single up the middle.
Handed an 8-5 lead, Kimbrel ceded a run in the eighth and went to the mound to get the last three outs following an incredible diving catch by Reddick with the bases loaded that ended the top of the ninth.
Shaky throughout the postseason, Kimbrel worked through the landmines of the ninth. The Astros would lament the game, perhaps understandably, but lamentations in October do teams no good. The game is not about what could’ve been or should’ve been. It’s what was. And when the last out was recorded at 12:15 a.m., it was the third straight ALCS victory for Boston and a season on the brink for the Astros.
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