Good old Laz Diaz. He usually finds himself in the middle of something, and usually in a negative manner. Game Four’s home plate umpire missed 23 pitches, whether strikes that should have been called balls, or balls that should have been called strikes. None was more important than the pitch he called a ball from Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi to the Astros’ Jason Castro in a 2-2 game in the top of the ninth. Clearly in the strike zone, the pitch should have ended the inning. Instead, given new life, Castro singled to give Houston the lead and the Astros piled on from there. Game over. Series tied.
So, Game Four will be known as the Laz Diaz game, just as another game four from many moons ago in 1999. In that fateful game, since retired umpired made a crucial call on a “tag” by Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch applied to Boston’s Jose Offerman. This was another potential series altering call.
But let’s also not forget the anemic Red Sox offense after the first inning last night. Boston’s unworldly offense in this postseason was shut down by a plethora of Houston relievers that has suddenly turned this series from what appeared to be a foregone conclusion to anything but. In what has become a disturbing trend on two fronts in these playoffs is Boston’s inability to put a team away by continuing to pile up runs and in holding a late lead. Games 2 and 3 vs Houston were indeed put away early, however, last night, it seemed they had Zach Greinke and relievers on the ropes only to squander opportunities. There was also Game Four against the Rays in the division series in which the Red Sox put up a five run inning and couldn’t score again until the series winning run in the ninth inning. In both games, the Sox had the lead in the eighth inning and couldn’t hold it.
While this series seemed to be tilting in Boston’s favor, we are now in a best-of-3 scenario where both team’s pitching staffs are taxed. Two of these games would be played in Houston. I am much more nervous today than I was yesterday.
The Astros took over first place in the AL West and never really looked back, cruising to another division title. The Red Sox meanwhile, scuffled during August and September and won on the final day of the season to secure a wild card berth.
In the postseason, the Astros took down a talented and up and coming Chicago White Sox team 3-1 to advance to the ALCS. The Red Sox knocked off its archrival New York Yankees in the wild card game, before dispatching the top seed, 100-win Tampa Bay Rays 3-1.
Both teams possess plenty of firepower. The Astros have the likes of Michael Brantley, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alverez, and Carlos Correa up and down its lineup. Meanwhile, the Red Sox counter with Xander Boegaerts, Rafael Devers, Kyle Schwarber, Kike Hernandez, and JD Martinez. Both squads are sure to put up their share of runs and drive up pitch counts.
This matchup is difficult to determine based on how the starting pitching will play out. The Astros have concerns reportedly about Lance McCullers Jr. regarding a forearm issue. Meanwhile, former Cy Young award winner Zach Greinke pitched only one in in relief in the division series. Houston’s other starters, Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia, had rough outings against the White Sox, but are otherwise solid.
The Red Sox have questions, as well. Clinching the division series a day earlier allows them to line up its best starter, Nathan Eovaldi, for game one. Meanwhile, Chris Sale, fresh off Tommy John surgery, had a rough one-inning stint vs the Rays. Eduardo Rodriquez pitched a great game in the clincher, however, seems to follow up good starts with bad ones.
SLIGHT EDGE: Red Sox, only because of the uncertainty surrounding McCullers and Grienke, plus the fact Eovaldi is slated for the first game and a potential series altering game five.
Ah, postseason baseball. Mixing and matching. Where managers find creative ways to get key outs. For Houston, the thought of Greinke in this sort of middle relief role is intriguing, but one wonders if they would not be better served with him starting. In addition, the Astros feature Kendall Graveman, Ryan Pressly, Phil Maton, and Ryan Stanek as part of a solid, if unspectacular bullpen.
Meanwhile, Boston has gone through a complete makeover in its pen. Manager Alex Cora seems to have settled on rookie Garrett Whitlock as his closer, so to speak, and likes Ryan Brasier in a late inning role. Cora can also come in with Hansel Robles and Josh Taylor, while utilizing converted starters Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck in a hybrid relief situation. Both Pivetta and Houck played keys roles in the series against Tampa Bay.
SLIGHT EDGE: Astros. Houston’s bullpen has pitched well in the postseason to this point, while the Red Sox walked a tightrope in the late innings against the Rays. In Boston’s victories in games three and four, the Red Sox blew eighth inning leads, only to win in dramatic walk-off fashion. I expect to see Pivetta and Houck take some innings away from Robles and Brasier in this series, which may even out the bullpen matchup.
The Astros play under the steady leadership of longtime baseball man Dusty Baker, who had the unenviable task of replacing AJ Hinch, who was let go as part of the team’s sign stealing scandal in 2017. Baker has done a fantastic job and has Houston on the cusp of another, and legitimate, World Series appearance.
Countering Baker is Boston’s Alex Cora, who has yet to lose a postseason series. Whether it’s making seemingly crazy, but, inevitably, the right decision, Cora seems to have an aura of magic around him. He leads a younger generation of managers, along with Tampa’s Kevin Cash and Hinch, who has rebounded with Detroit, in guiding a team through the postseason by utilizing unorthodox methods.
EDGE: Red Sox. While Baker is an underrated manager, look for Cora to make a head scratching decision or two that could turn the tide of the series.
Red Sox in 7. This will be an extremely competitive series. In the end, Cora will push the right buttons, and someone like Pivetta will turn in a performance such as Eovaldi in the hybrid role during 2018 World Series that will be the determining factor.