Associated Press

Astros beat the Red Sox in a wild one, move on to the ALCS

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Game 4 of the ALDS between the Astros and Red Sox was certainly not a conventional affair. But it sure was an entertaining one, with ace starters looking like ace relievers — at least for a time — and an ace reliever failing to hold off Houston’s final rally. However we got there, the Astros won it 5-4 and will move on to the American League Championship Series to take on the winner of the Indians-Yankees series.

Early on this one felt like it’d be a high-scoring game, but neither team was able to capitalize when it mattered. The Astros threatened often in the first three innings, but left six on base, and only managed two runs: one on a run scoring double play in the first and a second on a George Springer RBI single in the second.

The Red Sox scored their first run on a Xander Bogaerts solo shot in the first and threatened several other times in the first few innings, but came up empty. Most notably when they had the bases loaded and nobody out in the second, but Astros starter Charlie Morton struck out Jackie Bradley Jr. and Dustin Pedroia before getting Xander Bogaerts to fly out. Both strikeouts were controversial, with some bad calls, particularly strike three to Bradley. The borderline strike three to Pedroia led to John Farrell’s ejection as he protected a livid Pedroia.

The Red Sox blew another opportunity in the third, as Morton looked profoundly hittable, giving up a solid single to Andrew Benintendi, and then a hard shot by Mookie Betts which was caught by Alex Bregman, who then doubled Benintendi off first. That was unfortunate for Boston, because the very next batter, Mitch Moreland, doubled and it likely would’ve plated a run. Morton then gave up a 400 foot foul ball to Hanley Ramirez before Ramirez singled. An aggressive send by third base coach Brian Butterfield resulted in Moreland getting nailed easily at home. Morton was steadier in the fourth, striking out the side, leaving a game the Red Sox could’ve broken open at 2-1 in favor of Houston.

That’s when things got weird, with a couple of ace starting pitchers coming on in relief.

The Red Sox called on Chris Sale to relieve starter Rick Porcello in the bottom half of the fourth. Sale was sharp and pumped, flashing a 99 m.p.h. heater at times. He retired the side in order in the fourth and held Houston scoreless in the top of the fifth as well. In the bottom of the fifth A.J. Hinch countered by bringing in Justin Verlander for his first ever relief appearance. The thinking was probably “let’s shut down the Red Sox here rather than risk a Game 5.” That didn’t work out quite as planned, as the notoriously slow-starting Verlander walked Xander Bogaerts and then gave up a long homer to Benintendi to give Boston the 3-2 lead:

Verlander settled down and held Boston scoreless in the sixth and seventh. Sale continued to dominate as well, holding Boston scoreless in the sixth and seventh himself. He was up to 65 pitches after he was done working in the seventh, but in a move that will be second-guessed by Red Sox fans for a long time, Sale was sent out back for the eighth. Whatever was the theoretically correct decision at the time turned out to be wrong in hindsight, as Sale allowed a homer to Alex Bregman to tie the game at 3:

He then let Evan Gattis reach on a single before giving way to Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel threw a wild pitch, allowing pinch runner Cameron Maybin to reach second. Josh Reddick then singled in Maybin, putting the Astros up 4-3.

Ken Giles held Boston scoreless in the bottom of the eighth. Kimbrel continued on in the top of the ninth, allowing two base runners before giving up a two-out double to Carlos Beltran off the Green Monster, scoring a run to make it 5-3. The insurance run would prove to be necessary because, of course, this one couldn’t end conventionally. It had to be weird.

The last bit of weirdness: Rafael Devers led off the bottom of the ninth with a long drive to deep left center that bounced off the wall and eluded a leaping George Springer and ricocheted a hundred feet, allowing Devers to score on an inside-the-park homer to make it 5-4:

Giles bore down at that point, however, getting Christian Vazquez to ground out to short for the first out, struck Jackie Bradley Jr. out swinging for out number two and then retired Dustin Pedroia on a grounder to second to end the game.

While I think a lot of people expected this series to be decided in large part by the pitching of Chris Sale and Justin Verlander, I don’t think anyone would’ve expected the deciding game to come down to their work out of the pen. Indeed, if anyone would’ve said so, I would’ve asked to have some of whatever it was they smoking.

But that’s the playoffs in 2017, folks. Unorthodoxy prevails. The unexpected should be expected. And the Boston Red Sox are the first playoff team to go home for the winter.

Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts remains on the turf after he was unable to catch up with a ball hit by Josh Reddick, which drove in a run, during the eighth inning in Game 4 of baseball’s American League Division Series, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Astros gave the Yankees an opening. Keuchel and Verlander will try to close the door.

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If Game 4 of the ALCS had been even remotely conventional, it’d stand at 3-1 in favor of Houston right now. The Yankees’ starter pitched well but got no run support. A mighty Astros team with an ordinarily good closer in Ken Giles had a 4-0 lead in the late innings. As the Yankees set out to mount a comeback, a base runner fell down in between first and second and should’ve been dead to rights. This is playoff baseball, however, so stuff, as they say, happens. The runner was safe, the closer struggled, the Yankees rallied and now we’re tied 2-2.

But are we even at 2-2?

On paper, no, because the Astros now will send Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander out in Games 5 and 6, and that gives them a clear advantage. Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game 1, tossing seven scoreless innings and striking out ten batters. Verlander struck out 13 batters in a 124-pitch complete game in which he allowed only a single run. Beyond the mere facts of the box scores, however, the Yankees have looked profoundly overmatched by both of the Astros’ aces, in this postseason and on other occasions on which they’ve faced off against them. Most notably in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium when Keuchel pitched six scoreless innings in the 3-0 victory.

But remember: stuff happens.

Stuff like Aaron Judge‘s and Gary Sanchez‘s bats waking up. The two most important sluggers in the Bombers lineup combined to go 3-for-6 with two doubles, a homer, a walk and five RBI in last night’s victory. Each of them had been silent for the first three games of the series but if they’re heating up, the Yankees will be a lot harder to pitch to.

Stuff like Masahiro Tanaka showing that he can tame the Astros’ lineup. Which he did pretty well in Game 1, giving up only two runs on four hits in six innings. He was overshadowed by Keuchel in that game, but it was a good performance against a strong lineup in a hostile environment. Tanaka pitches much better at Yankee Stadium than he does on the road, so don’t for a second think that the Astros bats will have an easy time of it today.

Stuff like the Yankees bullpen still being the Yankees bullpen. Yes, the Astros got to David Robertson yesterday, but it’s still a strong, strong group that gives the Yankees a clear advantage if the game is close late or if they hold a lead.

All of which is to say that we have ourselves a series, friends. While, 48 hours ago, it seemed like we were on our way to an Astros coronation, the Yankees have shown up in a major way in Games 3 and 4. If you’re an Astros fan you should feel pretty confident with Keuchel and Verlander heading into action over the next two games, but we have learned that absolutely nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.