Deep and confident Astros get important early jump in ALCS

BOSTON — Judged solely by the early innings of the boxscore from Saturday’s opener of the best-of-seven ALCS, the game unfolded pretty much as billed.

For the top of each inning, you had Red Sox ace Chris Sale, who allowed just a measly single on a one-hit, two-run night of work.

For the bottom half, it was Astros ageless veteran Justin Verlander doing the same in holding the vaunted Boston attack to just two hits and two runs.

In reality, it was a pitching duel in name only as the World Series champion Astros got the early jump with a 7-2 win to quiet an increasingly nervous crowd of 38,007 at Fenway Park.

The end result also was misleading given that the Astros added four runs on a pair of ninth-inning homers, the first extra-base hits of an odd night at the grand but glum old ballpark.

Both starters — and in particular Sale — struggled at times with walks, errors and hit batsmen with what was certainly a bizarre four hour, three minute opening to the highly anticipated series.

The Astros, who last autumn showed they can win a game pretty much anyway it unfolds improved to 4-0 these playoffs and are a loose and confident bunch. Running away with this one late in the game will only add to their swagger in the short turnaround before Sunday night’s Game 2 and their favoured status has only been enhanced by the result of Game 1.

Sale certainly wasn’t himself from the outset and only lasted four innings despite allowing just one hit. He certainly wasn’t the Cy Young calibre force he was before being injured earlier in the season and overpowering as he was in a Game 1 ALDS win over the Yankees.

When the Astros opened the scoring in the second with a pair of runs off Sale, the rally started with two outs and went like this: Walk, walk, hit by pitch, walk, single. With his velocity down and his command wanting, it wasn’t pretty.

On the other side, when the Red Sox tied it up with two of their own off Verlander in the fifth, it was a similar breakdown in command from the starter. After Steve Pearce opened with a single and Brock Holt struck out, Verlander issued free passes to three consecutive passes to bring in one run then allowed the second to cross with a wild pitch.

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The difference was that Verlander was able to collect himself, pitch a scoreless sixth and hand the game to his world-class bullpen.

As a result, Verlander earned the 13th post-season win of his career and remained the clutch, big-game performer the Astros have counted on since they acquired him in a steal from the Detroit Tigers last August.

He was certainly the ace in their World Series run a year ago and with the Astros unbeaten again this post season he already has a pair of wins.

The vaunted Verlander focus certainly wasn’t sidetracked by the 108-win Red Sox and the sellout crowd of 39,007 at Fenway. The Astros are an incredibly confident bunch and it gets a nice start from their ace.

“He doesn’t talk on his start day but his preparation is off-the-chart good,” Astros manager Hinch said just a couple hours before first pitch “He wants the ball. He wants the moment. He wants the big out, whether that’s a game in May or a game in October.

“Watching him prepare you start to see why he produces the results that he does.”

A Boston attack that dominated on its way to a cruise control tile in the AL East, was muted from the outset. That is of particular concern given the varied power Hinch has both from his rotation and his bullpen.

After Verlander exited with a pitch count at 90, the ultra-deep Houston bullpen took over with Ryan Pressly tossing a scoreless seventh followed by Lance McCullers Jr. dealing up a one-two-three eighth.

Former Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was warming in the Astros pen in line for a save bid but ultimately wasn’t needed as the Houston offence exploded.

Josh Reddick got it started with a solo homer to deep centre to make the score 4-2. It was the first extra-base hit of the game and extended the Astros post-season homer streak to 13 post-season games in a row, matching an American League record.

They weren’t done then, however. Later in the ninth, first baseman Yuli Gurriel belted a three-run shot and the rout was on.

Looking ahead, there will be plenty of angst surrounding the Red Sox, the winningest team in baseball this year. If Sale gets another start, he’ll need to be noticeably better than he was on Saturday. His velocity was off and his location was erratic. Sure, the Red Sox lead man only allowed one hit in his four innings of work, but the pitch count of 86 told the true story.

And the historic old ball park may have even more nervous energy on Sunday evening with David Price not only in search of his first playoff win as a starter but desperate to give his team a split before the series heads to Houston for three and the possibility of not coming back for more.

The Astros are the World Series champs — and the betting favourites in this one — for a reason. With pitching depth to carry through long into the night, the champs look dominant — and certainly capable of shortening the series in a hurry.

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Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies