HOUSTON — Backs against the wall – occasionally by their own doing – these Boston Red Sox proved hard to pin down.
The Houston Astros finally got them for good Friday night.
Boston’s bats went quiet for the third straight game and the Red Sox bowed out of the AL Championship Series with a punchless 5-0 loss to the Astros in Game 6.
They had just two hits Friday, baffled by starter Luis Garcia and a quartet of relievers, and combined for just three runs and 10 hits over the final three games of the series.
The wild-card Red Sox arrived in Houston needing consecutive victories to avoid elimination and keep alive their pursuit of another World Series title after winning in 2018.
“We don’t quit,” catcher Christian Vazquez vowed.
Instead, they barely showed up.
Such a muted dismissal hardly fit with the rest of the team’s season. This was a club with a knack for exceeding expectations – even when they were the ones undercutting their own chances.
Boston was hardly projected as an October favorite entering the year. Manager Alex Cora was fired prior to the 2020 season for his involvement in Houston’s 2017 cheating scandal, and Mookie Betts was salary dumped to the Dodgers a month later. No surprise, then, when Boston sank to last place in the AL East in 2020.
Even with Cora rehired in November, little better was expected this spring. Instead, the Red Sox emerged rejuvenated and ready to challenge for a postseason spot, leading the division for much of the first half behind resurgent stars Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, plus free-agent acquisition Kike Hernandez.
Nathan Eovaldi emerged as a Cy Young Award contender, Eduardo Rodriguez rebounded from a COVID-related heart illness that kept him out of 2020, and ace Chris Sale was expected back in the second half after two years gone following Tommy John surgery.
A COVID-19 outbreak in the clubhouse threatened to derail that rolling start.
Just six teams failed to reach MLB’s 85% vaccination threshold for relaxing safety protocols, and the Red Sox were one of them. So when the virus began to spread around the clubhouse in late August, it led to a dozen players and two support staffers being sidelined after positive tests.
Those forced out of action included Hernandez, Bogaerts and Sale. The team slumped and nearly fell out of the playoff picture, but a seven-game winning streak in mid-September rekindled its wild-card charge. Boston won four of its final five games to clinch a postseason berth on the last day of the regular season.
Suddenly, the Sox were unstoppable.
Boston throttled Yankees ace Gerrit Cole to win the wild-card game, batted .341 as a team while pounding the top-seeded Rays 3-1 in the Division Series, and began a similar clobbering of Houston in the ALCS by winning Games 2 and 3 by a combined 21-8.
“We just got beat at the end, but when we look back and everything that we went through, the thoughts of this team early in the season, it’s just amazing,” Cora said. “It was a great year.”
The October-tested Astros got their pitching in order and began stifling the red-hot Sox in Game 4. Boston dropped that one 9-2, lost 9-1 a day later and fell into a 3-2 series hole heading to Houston for Game 6.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall all year long,” Hernandez said Friday afternoon. “We’ve been battling, we’ve been grinding all year long, and we didn’t get to this point to go out without a battle.”
The fight never came.
For the second straight game, they were held hitless through four innings, this time by Garcia, who didn’t allow a knock until Hernandez’s triple with two outs in the sixth.
Starter Nathan Eovaldi kept it close. The AL Cy Young Award contender threw 4 1/3 effective innings, including a gutsy fourth when he struck out two with runners at second and third, then got an inning-ending punchout of Chas McCormick after an intentional walk of Yuli Gurriel loaded the bases.
“No one expected us to be here,” Eovaldi said. “We proved a lot of people wrong.”
The bullpen kept things close, but the offense never broke through.
The best chance came in the seventh, when Boston put runners at the corners with one out, trailing 2-0. Pinch-hitter Travis Shaw struck out swinging, dropping Boston to 1 for 19 with runners in scoring position for the series. On the same pitch, catcher Martin Maldonado nabbed Alex Verdugo trying to steal second.
Verdugo’s lead off first was too short, and his jump so-so. An unforced error that took the sails out of Boston’s last best chance to stretch its season.
“I just bet on my players,” Cora said, noting that Maldonado delivered the ball to second in 1.4 seconds, below his average of around 1.9. “it just mattered that their catcher just came out shooting and he made a perfect throw.”
Boston went down in order in the eighth, and Houston’s Kyle Tucker hit a three-run homer in the bottom half.
When Bogaerts flied out to left for the final out in the ninth, the club watched mostly motionless from the dugout as Houston began its celebration.
“We had bigger goals,” Cora said. “But to be honest with you, I’m very proud of the group.”
The next hurdle: flushing away the hurt from this one and coming back with a little more fight in 2022.
“We got a lot of things to look forward to,” Eovaldi said. “And I think having this bitter taste in our mouth is going to be good motivation again for next year coming forward.”