BOSTON — On Sunday, Mookie Betts gave David Price the best gift he could have imagined: a night off from the narrative. David Price can’t pitch in the postseason. He entered Game 2 of the ALCS with an abysmal record: 10 playoff starts, 10 playoff losses for his team, a 6.03 ERA, untold tabloid headlines and derisive tweets reminding him that he would be the story every time he pitched in October. He left Game 2 having limited enough damage for the Red Sox to win 7–5 and salvage a split of the first two games.
“This isn’t about me,” Price insisted after the game. “I understand the narratives. I get that. I deserve those narratives. But this is bigger than David Price. This isn’t about me. This is about the Boston Red Sox.”
And, finally, for the first time since he arrived in 2016 on a seven-year, $217 million deal, it was. A night after Betts rolled over a groundball to kill a bases-loaded rally, he laced two doubles into centerfield, one that drove in a run and one that eventually scored one. He also turned a walk into the eventual winning run when he danced around the bases on a wild pitch and two passed balls. The Red Sox bullpen, so untrustworthy that manager Alex Cora has three times in six postseason games used starters as relievers, held the lead. Price’s outing—4 2/3 innings, four runs—became something of a footnote.
Cora maintained before the game that Sunday was not a must-win. “It's a game that we know it's important, just like yesterday, just like the rest of the series,” he said. But the truth is that the outcome changed the complexion of the ALCS.
Boston won 108 games, the most in franchise history and the most in the game this year, but 103-win Houston actually entered the series as the favorite, 53.8% to 46.2%, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds calculator. The Red Sox had home field advantage but promptly ceded it with the Game 1 loss. If they had lost on Sunday, they would have headed to Houston needing to take four of five against the team whose +263 run differential suggested it was not just the best club this year but one of the best of all time. They trotted out a pair of Cy Young Award candidates—ace Justin Verlander, whose 6.2 WAR was third in the league, and No. 2 Gerrit Cole, whose 5.3 was sixth—in the first two games and should probably have won both.
Instead the Red Sox began to play more like the team that got here. It was only a matter of time until Betts, who had been 4–for–October, broke out. On Sunday afternoon Houston manager A.J. Hinch called him a “ticking time bomb.”
“Our approach is to keep him out of the batter's box with any opportunity to do damage,” said Hinch. “He's one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball. And so you can imagine my thought is panic and fear whenever he comes up to bat with no escape area.”
And the bullpen had leaked but mostly held against the Yankees, so there was some hope in Boston that if the starters could perform, the Astros might run out of game.
The question mark, as it has been since he allowed 16 runs in 23 1/3 October innings in 2015, was Price. Cora told reporters after the implosion against the Yankees that he was not considering demoting Price to the bullpen, and he told Price before the Red Sox had even shed their jerseys in favor of ALDS CHAMPIONS shirts that he would have Game 2, but Price’s history so far is that of perhaps the worst starting performance in 114 years of baseball postseasons.
His statistics do not account for the times his managers left him in as he clearly tired, or for his two-run complete game in the ’13 Game 163 tiebreaker that sent his Rays to the playoffs, or for his 2.35 ERA in 15 1/3 postseason relief innings, but they tell a story, and Price knows what it is. As the losses accumulated and the pressure increased, he seemed more and more frustrated. Speculation swirled among the fanbase and the media and even opposing players. Was the moment getting too big for him? Was he demanding so much from himself that he became unable to do anything at all? He kept insisting that he could take the heightened scrutiny, but not until Sunday did he show that. (If we did see a pitcher for whom the moment got too big, it was not Price. It was Cole. “Early I thought he was a little over-amped,” said Hinch. “It was going pretty fast for him in the first inning.”)
Price had spoken before the game of the importance of that first inning in setting a tone; he walked two but escaped with a pair of strikeouts. In the second inning he did allow two runs, but those could have been charged to shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who took his time getting to a Carlos Correa groundball and turned an out into an infield single. George Springer doubled down the rightfield line on a ball that traveled 135 feet. Price did not appear to let the miscues rattle him. He struck out José Altuve and walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 37,960. They saluted him again when Cora came to get him after 4 2/3—one out shy of that elusive first win as a starter—and Price slightly doffed his cap as he walked to the dugout.
The win ensured that that these teams will play at least a Game 5, in Houston. Ace Chris Sale is lined up to start that night. Cora has not yet told Price whether he will have a possible Game 6, but Price is not thinking that far ahead.
“I’ll be ready for Tuesday,” when the series resumes, he said. The best outcome for Price the next time he pitches would be a win. The second best would be a night when no one is talking about him.