Commentary

The Astros are better, but the Red Sox proved again they can compete with anybody

Christian Arroyo
Christian Arroyo certainly earned his cart ride on Thursday night against the Astros. Elise Amendola / AP

We’re almost all still viewing the Astros through the lens of the 2017 World Series, and how they won it, so let’s use it. Embrace the ways Thursday’s roller-coaster Red Sox win felt like that punch-counterpunch Game 5 in Houston against the Dodgers, even if we have to squint a little.

That October classic was fun. Thursday night was fun. Watching two great teams go back and forth, especially when one’s as unlikable as the Astros? Fun, fun, fun.

“They’re a big inning waiting to happen almost every inning,” Jerry Remy mused on NESN during the fifth, just after Eduardo Rodriguez needed 106 pitches to get 14 outs, but before Kyle Tucker doubled and made it Houston’s biggest inning of Thursday.

Tucker is the guy you’d probably forget in the absurd trivia question, “Who were the four first-round picks, all taken in the top six of their drafts, the Astros started on Thursday night?” The Sox got their licks in against Zack Greinke (No. 6, 2002 for KC) and held Carlos Correa (No. 1, 2012) hitless, but Alex Bregman singled and scored twice, and Tucker — taken No. 5, three picks after Bregman, in 2015 — knocked home those three runs. It made him 12 for 24 this season against the Red Sox (and he’d be 13 for 25 this morning had Kiké Hernández not dove for Tucker’s shot to the left-center gap in the eighth).

Tucker was American League top 10 in multiple offensive categories last season, and this year is eighth in doubles. Houston’s batting him sixth, and who can argue behind José Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Yordan Álvarez, and Yuli Gurriel?

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Yet as Houston did four years ago, the hosts had the response every time. Not that they were all art: The five-run rally in the sixth featured two dropped fly balls, three walks, Christian Vázquez getting grazed by a pitch, and a fan running on the field.

Vázquez, however, was 3 for 4 with 3 RBIs. Bobby Dalbec ripped three balls at least 100 mph off the bat, including his Houston-esque first-pitch double in the sixth. Rafael Devers had his customary two rockets. J.D. Martinez cracked his first home run since his game-saver in Dunedin three weeks ago. Christian Arroyo, who hit a cheapie in Houston for his first Red Sox home run, made sure his second was a genuine shot.

“Kind of just blacked out a little bit,” Arroyo told reporters of his raucous celebration.

Odds are, should Houston and Boston meet again this year, it will not be as dueling 100-win teams the way it was in the 2018 ALCS. (Or the way it was for the Dodgers and Astros in that 2017 World Series.) But the idea of such a meeting seems more possible by the day.

Yes, Houston won a definitive five of seven meetings between the teams, outscoring the Sox, 42-25. Feels a lot closer than it did when it was five of six going into Thursday, though, doesn’t it? When the Sox answered Gurriel off the Pesky Pole, Altuve off the ground, and everything else tossed their way?

“They have a good baseball team,” manager Alex Cora told reporters. “I do feel they’re about to take off as a team over there. They’re a complete team. Offensively they’re very dangerous. But we do believe we can play with them.

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“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but obviously we have big goals, just like they do. They have a good team, and we do believe we have a good team, too.”

Houston challenged Cora’s overachievers in a way no other opponent has. The Red Sox have an MLB-best 22 comeback victories in 2021, but the Astros blew them off the field in their first meeting, held the Martinez-Bogaerts-Devers power plant hitless in the second, and were up big early in easily winning the first two of this series at Fenway.

They’ve earned their place as the favorites for the American League pennant, even while — like the Red Sox to the Rays — the Astros don’t even lead their division. They are outperforming in a world where the Yankees and Twins were supposed to be leading the AL parade, but Houston is just about where we thought.

The Red Sox, obviously, aren’t. They pounded the Rays at Fenway and the Twins in Minnesota in April. They treaded water in May, then pounded New York at Yankee Stadium after Houston delivered what looked like it could’ve been the start of an early summer wakeup call.

It was, but not in a debilitating way. The Sox, and we, leave these seven games with the confidence they can compete. With some knowledge of what better teams will throw at them. The Astros bombarding him with fastballs only helps Devers know what he needs to work on. Same goes rosterwide.

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Iron sharpens iron, and showing their mettle has that much more against competition like this.

They’re on a 97-win pace. They’re still here. Winning just half of their remaining games remaining (and rounding up) is an 88-win season that exceeds almost every preseason expectation.

Rodriguez still isn’t right, though his 6.03 ERA has been bloated by soft contact. (Houston missed on nearly a third of its swings against him on Thursday.) I’m perpetually worried about the health of Nate Eovaldi and Garrett Richards, given their track records, and what the cascading effect would be on the bullpen.

But this team can beat anybody. They’ve proven that, they keep proving it, and that’s more than enough for me.

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