BOSTON – When Jose Altuve came to bat in the top of the seventh inning Wednesday night, the boos from the Fenway Park crowd scarcely registered, a stark contrast to the full-throated cries of dissent that greeted the Houston Astros second baseman during his previous plate appearances here.
As he dug into the batter’s box, a pair of fans directed a profane chant toward Altuve, a refrain that gained significant traction in Games 3 and 4 of this American League Championship Series.
This time, in the dying moments of Game 5, the two gentlemen repeated it just twice before Altuve silenced them with a line drive single.
It’s quite likely these Astros will never snuff out the boos, quiet the complaints and regain their good name among a vast majority of baseball fans. But in a startling two-game stretch, the Astros seized control of this American League Championship Series with a nearly perfect display of baseball that perched them on the verge of a third World Series trip in five years.
Altuve and Yordan Alvarez took the fight to the Boston Red Sox in Game 5, the diminutive second baseman sparking a five-run rally with an aggressive burst of baserunning and Alvarez putting on a majestic hitting clinic, driving three balls the opposite way over, off and beneath the Green Monster.
With left-hander Framber Valdez retiring the first 12 Red Sox hitters and galvanizing Houston’s emaciated pitching staff with eight innings of three-hit artistry, the Astros got out of town with a crisp 9-1 victory in front of 37,599, quite possibly the final gathering at Fenway this year.
The Astros are jetting home to friendlier ground, a 3-2 ALCS lead in hand and two chances to win the pennant, beginning Friday night at Minute Maid Park.
They earned that advantage with a 10-inning blitz that began in Game 4, when Altuve’s eighth-inning home run tied the score just six outs before Boston would claim a 3-1 ALCS advantage. A two-out, seven-run rally in the ninth delivered a 9-2, series-tying win.
Wednesday’s rout completed the 24-hour barrage in this series of split personalities: Boston outscored the Astros 21-8 in Games 2 and 3, only for the Astros to respond with an 18-3 aggregate in winning Games 4 and 5.
"This was in this hands of Framber, and really in the hands of Alvarez," says manager Dusty Baker. "Then, everybody else contributed and chipped in."
Particularly in a sixth-inning, eight-batter barrage that former heavyweight champ and Houston native George Foreman might appreciate.
That man Altuve started it with a leadoff walk against Chris Sale, who to that point had given up just two hits, striking out seven and flashing his best stuff since returning in August from Tommy John surgery.
The Astros would soon undo him.
With Michael Brantley batting, Altuve took off for second base and Brantley chopped a grounder to third baseman Rafael Devers, who charged and threw across the diamond. With Boston in a shift, Altuve failed to break stride and zoomed to third.
The daring dash possibly caught the eye of Boston’s Kyle Schwarber, who’s developed into a serviceable first baseman but still had just 11 career starts there entering the postseason.
And Schwarber dropped the ball.
"He looked at him," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of Schwarber, "and that's probably why he dropped it. Altuve just kept going and probably he looked up, and then all of a sudden the throw was right there."
A batter later, Alvarez – who homered off Sale in the second inning – pounced. He guided a 95-mph Sale fastball to left field, where it rattled into the corner for a two-run double and 3-0 lead.
Alvarez, more or less, singlehandedly wrecked Sale, who was otherwise outstanding. The lefty swinger adds a crucial dimension that the Astros missed last season, when they fell one game short of the AL pennant as Alvarez sat out with knee injuries.
"The only thing that surprises me about Yordan is the amount of talent that guy has," says Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel through an interpreter. "To hit a ball out like that against one of the best lefties in the game in Sale, tells you how much talent.
"I can’t remember seeing anybody do it with that kind of strength."
Alvarez's double stretched the lead to 3-0 and finished Sale after 5 ⅓ innings, but the Astros only proceeded to prove how hard they are to eradicate.
Their ninth-inning Game 4 rally came with two outs and so, too, would the Game 5 pile-on, proving what can be done when you put the ball in play: A Kyle Tucker infield single, a Gurriel opposite-field dunker for an RBI double, a two-run double from rookie Jose Siri.
It was 6-1, and by night’s end, Houston would increase its two-out postseason run total to 41, already ranking sixth in playoff history.
"If you are not making contact, you don't have any chance of getting those two-out hits," says Baker. "Put the ball in play, and then anything can happen."
Valdez didn’t need most of the support.
The curveball artist finally showed out this postseason, becoming the first starter in the 2021 playoffs to complete eight innings. He struck out five Red Sox, induced double plays in the fifth and seven innings and restored dignity to Houston’s starters. Valdez began this series with a slog of an outing – 2 2/3 innings in Game 1. Luis Garcia followed with a one-inning effort, while Jose Urquidy and Zack Greinke recorded five and four outs, respectively, in Games 3 and 4.
He effectively reset the Astros’ overworked bullpen, making for an undeniably happy flight back to Houston – where history is ready to be made, haters be damned.
“We came back to Boston exactly where we wanted to be: We were 1-1,” said Sale. “Not in a good spot going back to Houston. There’s no denying that, but this team has won two games in the playoffs back-to-back before, and we think we can do it again.”
Baker and the Astros, however, are in a much better spot.
"Now we're playing for a split and hopefully the split comes in Game 6."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ALCS Game 5: Astros silence Red Sox, one win from World Series