Commentary

A meek Game 6 ouster stings, but the Red Sox certainly overachieved, and left us wanting more again

Kyle Tucker home run off Adam Ottavino
Kyle Tucker's three-run homer off Adam Ottavino finished off Boston's surprising run to within two wins of the World Series. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In the final defensive half-inning of the 2021 Red Sox season, Bobby Dalbec played second base. It was a first: Not only had he not played there in the majors, but also the minors, college, or his Cape Cod summer. He’d simply taken grounders there periodically for a month, Alex Cora fitting it under the guise of “you never know.”

It mattered little, the 5-0 Game 6 loss that put Houston back in the World Series was so complete. But it just strikes me as somehow fitting for this surprise ALCS entrant.

Cora didn’t push every right button in the end, but he couldn’t have squeezed another ounce from this Red Sox roster, rolling the bones to the final out. But after eight charmed months, the puzzle pieces stopped fitting. The tumblers stopped aligning. And a better team, top to bottom, put it in its place.

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“We had bigger goals, but to be honest with you, I’m very proud of the group,” Cora told reporters postgame. “I mean, we started off well. Then we kind of ran out of gas for a little bit, and then we came back. And then at one point we were going to play a four-team playoff, and we win the Wild Card game. We win the Division Series.

“We just got beat by a great group of guys. A great team.”

Boston’s “perfect game” on Monday was as good as it got. Houston outscored the Sox, 22-1 (!) after Xander Bogaerts’ first-inning homer in Game 4. ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez outhit the whole team, 7-5, in Games 5 and 6.

In the end, the Sox and Astros played 13 times in 2021, and Houston won nine. Finally, a number we could’ve accurately predicted in February.

Cora poured out his whole magic bag on Friday night. Shuffled the bottom of the lineup, then emptied his bench. Danny Santana, given a lefty crack at the suddenly electric Luis Garcia, struck out. Travis Shaw couldn’t get bat on ball in a game-changing hit-and-run spot in the seventh.

It took a heck of a confluence for it to become a double play: Martín Maldonado’s throw was perfect, and Alex Verdugo (as was pointed out deftly on the Fox broadcast) didn’t have a great lead at first. Such a detail is too often beyond him, and was too often beyond a Sox team that inexplicably played until Oct. 22 in spite of it.

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Kiké Hernández dropped the double that became the first run, there in time after running a mile to reach it. Kyle Schwarber, great in his first stint playing first base, didn’t have every intricacy down on the play that scored Houston’s second run.

Of course, two Boston hits makes that largely moot. After five disciplined games, the Red Sox couldn’t lay off Garcia’s slider, chasing at least a dozen balls down and out of the zone.

From Baseball Savant, a chart of every Garcia pitch the Red Sox swung at on Friday.

“Once we were down one, we kind of had our backs against the wall,” Nate Eovaldi told reporters on Friday, largely confirming the pressure they always tried to play off weighed on them like we knew it did.

Rafael Devers, with a chance to tie the game in the sixth, flew out to short on one pitch. Bogaerts, with a chance for an early lead, watched a first-pitch fastball down the middle, then chased a two-strike slider. He went 5 for 26 (.192) in the series.

Hunter Renfroe, 1 for 16. Schwarber, 3 for 25. J.D. Martinez, 4 for 17, albeit with two home runs. And for all the expected teeth gnashing about pitching decisions, who came out of this series unscathed? Nick Pivetta? Eduardo Rodriguez maybe, though your mileage may vary given how badly you need a narrative.

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José Altuve tied Game 4 off Garrett Whitlock. Josh Taylor, the savior of the first half of the season, gave up Alvarez’s sixth-inning triple (with an assist to a very dramatic shift). Adam Ottavino missed middle-middle to Kyle Tucker and gave up an only-in-Houston home run to begin the celebration.

Even Eovaldi, who did his ace job Friday, gave up the critical hit of the series to a career .230 hitter. (Yes, yes. Laz Diaz. I know.)

I take relative comfort in that, frankly. They won as a top-to-bottom roster, and they lost as one. If the Dodgers are beaten by Atlanta in the NLCS either Saturday or Sunday, they will have lost to an inferior team. They will view this as a missed opportunity, an uber-roster that won 106 regular-season games not even claiming another pennant.

Did the Red Sox squander an opportunity? Sure, I guess. Any time you get within two games of the World Series is an opportunity, and even teams that believe they’ll be back like the 2017 Yankees did sometimes never get there again.

But it remains inexplicable they were really here. The Red Sox didn’t do the fundamentals real well. They didn’t stay in the strike zone. They were prone to getting rocket hot and ice cold from their unveiling — anemic in getting swept by Baltimore, then immediately winning nine straight. They rode momentum in both directions.

Those are all signs of a team not ready for primetime. Which this one wasn’t. Which for all its outward swagger probably knew it as much as we did. There’s a reason we all heaved around the word “magic” so much.

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But that’s why you play the games: Sometimes, the breaks fall your way, you’re one of the last four standing, and you can dream. They gave us the best kind of ride, the one never seen coming, right up until it hit the rocks. “You never know,” as Cora said.

What happens now? Kyle Schwarber will likely opt for free agency; do he and/or Eduardo Rodriguez warrant a return? Can Chaim Bloom negotiate a long-term deal with Rafael Devers? Can he possibly assemble as many wins out of spare parts as he did this year? Does the checkbook open this winter, the surprising season warranting a larger investment, or do we have to cry austerity again?

For starters, it all depends on the larger question of what happens now: Probably a low-rated World Series — Atlanta-Houston is the stuff comedic punchlines are made of — and a leak-laden, ugly war over the next collective bargaining agreement. Who knows what the financial landscape will look like then, or how reserved anyone will be until it’s clear, whenever it’s clear.

I’d like to think we’re just four months from the next sign of the Red Sox on the field, but I wouldn’t lay a bet on it.

At least they left us wanting more.

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