Red Sox

9 innings: Thoughts on Red Sox-Astros ahead of Game 5

What should we expect from Chris Sale Wednesday night?

Sgtan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
The Red Sox dugout in the ninth inning Tuesday was a dour contrast to Monday night's joy.


Playing nine innings while once again realizing that baseball doesn’t need robot umpires, just more competent human ones …

1. There were a pair of parallel truths to be found in the Red Sox’ 9-2 loss to the Astros Tuesday night, and both of them felt pretty lousy.

The Sox were hurt by the casual incompetence of home plate umpire Laz Diaz, who apparently has all of the visual impairments of the Three Blind Mice combined. He nearly led Red Sox manager Alex Cora to blow a gasket early in the game with an egregious strike-three call on J.D. Martinez. But he saved his worst call for the ninth inning.

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With the game tied, 2-2, the bases loaded, and the Astros’ Jason Castro at the plate against Nate Eovaldi, Diaz called a breaking ball that caught the upper right edge of the strike zone a ball. It should have been strike three, and Diaz had called that pitch a strike much of the night. Naturally, on the next pitch, Castro singled, and the Astros busted open a game they had to have.

If the Astros, who looked cooked in allowing 21 runs in the previous two games, end up winning the series, Diaz’s missed call (a specialty of his) will be a frustration carried into the winter around here.

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2. But there’s that other parallel truth: The Red Sox put themselves in a position to be damaged by the whims of a bad umpire by failing to help their own cause again and again. They never scored after Xander Bogaerts’s two-run homer in the first, going 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. The Sox managed just five hits, two coming with two outs in the ninth.

But it wasn’t just the offense that failed them. Their two best pitchers — Garrett Whitlock and Eovaldi — allowed the tying and winning runs, the former failing to hold a 2-1 lead in the eighth when Jose Altuve clubbed a solo homer.

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It wasn’t the finest night for Cora, either. The decision to bring in Martín Pérez to relieve Eovaldi after Castro’s single immediately backfired when Michael Brantley ripped his first pitch into the gap to clear the bases and put Houston up, 6-2.

There was a lot that went wrong for the Sox Tuesday. Some of it was inflicted upon them. But a lot of it — too much of it — was self-inflicted.

3. I recognize we’re in a new world when it comes to starting pitchers and the postseason. There’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about watching a starter go three innings, followed by seven relievers as managers hunt three- or four-batter pockets of favorable matchups. But I do try to get the math of it.

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I believe, however, that we saw a pretty clear example of how it can backfire Tuesday night. Nick Pivetta was superb, pitching five innings of two-hit, one-run ball, and needing just 65 pitches to get through those five innings. But Cora pulled him to start the sixth, bringing in Josh Taylor to face Brantley, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez.

Had the Red Sox at least given Pivetta a chance to get through the sixth — rather than using Taylor and Adam Ottavino to face a total of four batters — perhaps they would have had someone else available besides Pérez in the ninth.

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4. I’ve heard the Red Sox radio broadcasters lightly scoff at Zack Greinke’s Hall of Fame chances a couple of times this year, including Tuesday night. Their minds might change if they spent a little time digging into his baseball-reference page.

He’s a six-time All-Star, has won two ERA titles and a Cy Young (and should have another), has 219 victories (same as Pedro Martinez), has racked up 2,809 strikeouts, and has provided 73.1 Wins Above Replacement, tied with Jim Thome for 86th in baseball history and ahead of the likes of Jim Palmer, Clayton Kershaw, and Derek Jeter.

He might not be a lock, and he’s probably not going to do much more to enhance his case, but I’d bet on him getting in. He’ll get a vote here someday.

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5. Cristian Javier was the “hero in the dark” — the phrase former Red Sox pitcher Hideki Okajima once used to describe his important but unheralded role of getting key outs in relief — for the Astros.

He was their third pitcher, taking the mound to start the third inning, and gave Houston three shutout innings, anchoring a bullpen effort that held the Sox scoreless for 7⅔ innings overall.

Javier has pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings by himself this postseason, allowing just three hits in three appearances, with 13 strikeouts.

6. Dusty Baker took a lot of grief, much of it deserved, for the way he handled pitchers early in his career. But he’s an old-school baseball man who has continued to evolve and improve, and not only has he brought some dignity to the villainous Astros, he has become a terrific overall manager.

An overlooked savvy move Tuesday night: subbing in Castro as a pinch hitter for Martín Maldonado (who is 1 for 23 in the postseason) in the seventh inning. Castro was retired by Whitlock on a rocketed liner to Kyle Schwarber in that at-bat, but came through in the ninth against Eovaldi after Diaz’s gift.

7. Fine, I’ll go on record with it. I feel good about Chris Sale starting Game 5 Wednesday. He had more hop on his fastball in Game 1 than I can recall seeing during any of his previous 10 appearances this season since returning from Tommy John surgery. He allowed a run while recording eight outs in the ALCS opener.

Put him down for 12 outs Wednesday, and an appreciative salute from the Fenway crowd when his workday is done.

8. One positive development for the Red Sox offense Tuesday: Xander Bogaerts’s bat apparently has been awakened from its brief slumber. Bogaerts launched a no-doubter of a two-run homer in the first off Greinke; who would have figured then that it would account for the Sox’ only runs of the night, right?

He also lined a hard double to right-center with one out in the fifth off Javier, but was left stranded. He struck out in the ninth to end the game, but had the score still been 2-2 in that situation, Fenway would have been rocking, and I would have liked his chances to give fans a walkoff to remember.

9. Hunter Renfroe isn’t necessarily a bad outfielder, but his routes sometimes remind me of Michael Scott’s dancing on the “Booze Cruise” episode of “The Office.” Renfroe did everything but slap his thighs while going back on Carlos Correa’s crushed but catchable double to lead off the ninth. Very Trot Nixon-like.

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