The ride for the 2021 Red Sox seems over, which is inexplicably when they’ve been at their best

The Red Sox return to Minute Maid Park with no further room for error.

Chris Sale Alex Cora dugout welcome
Chris Sale was great for five innings in Wednesday's Game 5, but faltered in the sixth, and the game was soon gone. Barry Chin/Globe Staff


The ‘Rocky’ trilogy the underdog Red Sox were penning with these three American League Championship Series games at Fenway Park has glitched. The schedule said we were supposed to see Boston’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on Wednesday night.

Instead, Game 5 was their ‘Rocky V,’ a slog that couldn’t end fast enough, leaving the odds at their longest as they head back to baseball’s modern-day Soviet Union.

“We came back to Boston exactly where we wanted to be. You know, we were 1-1. Even took the lead in that Game 1 [in Houston]. Just kind of pissed two games away. That’s tough any way you cut it,” Chris Sale told reporters after a 9-1 loss left them down, 3-2, in the best-of-seven. “Not in a good spot going back to Houston. There’s no denying that, but this team has won two games in the playoffs back-to-back before, and we think we can do it again.”


It is difficult to not feel like that whimper was the year’s final game at Fenway, and to not start with the elegies to a season beyond expectations. The Red Sox easily could have won Games 1 and 4 against the Astros. They did win Games 2 and 3.

Game 5 was the wake-up. The reminder this Houston team simply has more talent, talent it showed in outscoring Boston by 17 runs in seven regular-season games. Sale missed his spot badly in the second inning, and cleanup man Yordan Alvarez — without an extra-base hit in the series to that point — began a dominant three-hit night.

They come from everywhere, the Astros hitters. Deepest lineup in the American League. And on Wednesday, a day after their bullpen came forward with a stellar 7⅔ innings, Framber Valdez delivered that himself and then some.

“He was throwing harder than usual. The ball was moving. We didn’t hit the ball hard at all,” Alex Cora told reporters of Valdez, who lasted just eight outs in Game 1. “His sinker was unreal tonight. Unreal.”

“He had a good tempo going. He threw — he didn’t mess around forcing that breaking ball, like he had the last couple starts, and then getting behind,” Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters. “He was attacking the strike zone, and, I mean, his pitch count was very, very low. He only got in trouble a couple of times, and then like I’ve always said, that sinker can get you out of trouble with two outs on one pitch.”


It did, twice, both against Hunter Renfroe. The season on the brink, it’s hard to ignore just how dreadful Renfroe, a revelation with 31 homers and a cannon arm in right field, has been in October. The 0-for-3 in Game 5 leaves him 1 for 14 against Houston and 7 for 34 (.206) in the playoffs, with just two extra-base hits.

Renfroe was second on the team in the regular season with 23 go-ahead plate appearances. He has batted with 33 men on base in the playoffs, including 17 in scoring position.

Renfroe has one RBI, and in Game 5 tied a major-league record by grounding into his fourth and fifth double plays of the postseason.

“He tried to do too much on that pitch, right?” Cora told reporters of the first, short-circuiting a fifth-inning rally just before Houston put things out of reach. “We had two runners on, and just the fastball — actually, it was a good pitch to hit; it was up in the zone, one of the few. He flew open, and hit the ball on the ground, and rolled over.

“We’ll keep rolling them out there, and tomorrow is a good day to reset. . . . we know we can hit. Two bad games doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we’re not a good offensive team. It’s just a matter of regroup, make some adjustments and attack from the first pitch on.”


There isn’t much else Cora can do, not with a bench of Bobby Dalbec, Kevin Plawecki, Travis Shaw, and Danny Santana. In Game 4, Cora was perhaps too quick with Nick Pivetta, pulling him after 65 pitches, perhaps wanting to keep him a possible bullpen option in Game 6.

On Wednesday, perhaps because of how hard he leaned on that bullpen the night before, he let the best Sale we’ve seen in a long while go an inning too long.

The velocity the lefty showed in fanning Kyle Tucker in the fourth was gone in the sixth. After the Astros set the table on him, Ryan Brasier — who some thought would have been a better option for the fateful at-bat on Tuesday — got a little bad luck, got beat by Yuli Gurriel, and the game was lost.

Houston put 11 first pitches in play in Game 5. That contact produced six hits, and plated six of their runs.

“They put the ball in play, we didn’t make plays, and that happened,” Cora said.

It all seemed to be falling together so recently. His Sox caught a major break when Houston lost its ace Lance McCullers to injury. It made its own breaks in taking a 2-1 series lead, cashing in on its chances with the bases loaded and crushing the Astros early.

It’s simply not good enough to weather fumbling two possible victories as it has. To handle Renfroe’s disappearance, not when he started so much on the way to getting them here.

And so, they return to Minute Maid Park with no further room for error. They all said the right things after Game 5, at least. Turn the page. They’ve won in hostile environments before. And heck, they’ve been left for dead more times than Robert Balboa ever was.


“This is our story. We’ve been written off all year,” J.D. Martinez told reporters. “Nobody, I don’t think anyone in here either, thought we were going to be here. To that we know what we’re capable of, and I think no one is not believing in themselves or not believing in our team that we can go out there and go off, you know?”

It’s asking a lot. With Game 6 starter Nate Eovaldi coming off his relief spot in Game 4. With Houston’s bullpen finally rested and going home. With a momentum lineup gone cold the last two days. And that’s just one of the wins they need.

We may as well write ’em off. They’ve been dancing on their own all year anyway.

And, as a wise man once said, “it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Well, maybe not wise, but I saw it in a movie once. And boy, wouldn’t this make a heck of a setup for the underdog’s climactic coronation.


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