HOUSTON – A thunderclap of power, no doubt, catapulted the Boston Red Sox into the record books and perhaps into command of their American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.
The Red Sox made history Saturday before many fans at Minute Maid Park could finish their chips and queso, with a pair of crackling grand slams off the bats of J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers in the first two innings. Kiké Hernández would later clang yet another ball off the wall in back of the Crawford Boxes, his fifth home run in five games, tying franchise legend David Ortiz (and Todd Walker) for most homers in a Red Sox postseason.
They seized a nine-run lead and coasted home, beating the Astros 9-5 to square this series 1-1, and a pair of giddy home-plate celebrations after the slams will surely be this game’s postcard shot.
Yet while his performance was neither historic nor particularly remarkable, the true unicorn in this game was Boston’s starting pitcher, Nate Eovaldi.
See, in a series pitting the AL’s ostensibly two best teams, Eovaldi’s name is the only one written down in pen when his manager is plotting his pitching plans.
In a series where the Game 1 starters each pitched 2 ⅔ innings and Houston’s Game 2 starter, Luis Garcia, exited after one inning and one batter with reported knee irritation, Eovaldi’s 5 ⅓-inning effort provides some separation in a series pitting powerful, evenly-matched yet undeniably flawed teams.
And in these AL playoffs, a team’s starting pitcher has recorded an out in the sixth inning just three times.
Eovaldi’s done it twice, in Saturday’s Game 4 and the AL wild-card win over the New York Yankees, going 5 1/3 innings both times. The third performance? That belongs to Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr., who pitched 6 ⅔ innings to beat the Chicago White Sox in Game 1 of their AL Division Series.
McCullers is out of this ALCS due to forearm swelling. Garcia may join him in the infirmary with his leg ailment, though Astros manager Dusty Baker says they're not yet prepared to replace him on the series roster.
Jake Odorizzi, an option to start Game 4 for the Astros, had to absorb four innings and 82 pitches of emergency relief – yielding Devers’ grand slam - after Garcia’s abrupt exit.
See where this is going?
Baker will turn to Jose Urquidy, a World Series-tested arm, in Game 3 Monday at Boston. Yet Urquidy’s made just 32 career starts and carries a 4.13 career fielding independent pitching mark, the kind of starter Boston’s ravenous hitters chew up and discard.
And Game 4 remains a mystery - Odorizzi said it's not a secret he's out of that mix now - leaving Zack Greinke (who hasn't started a game since Sept. 19), Game 1 starter Framber Valdez on short rest or a bullpen melange to cover it.
Not that the Red Sox should get too comfortable. Manager Alex Cora was far from effusive both before and after the game regarding his Game 3 plans, which would figure to include lefty Eduardo Rodriguez.
“We'll get there when we get there,” he says. “We're not going to name a starter for Game 3.”
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Red Sox slug grand slams in first two innings of ALCS Game 2
Yet in a landscape where "TBA" is usually every team's next starter, Eovaldi provides a solid foundation. He's now 4-1 with a 2.37 ERA in nine appearances, five of them starts, between Boston's 2018 World Series title chase and this autumn's increasingly intriguing run.
And Eovaldi even said Saturday he'd be ready to go in the bullpen for Game 3, not that Cora would risk that.
"To me," says Martinez, "come playoff time, I want Nate on the mound, because he seems to have it. He has that dog in him."
The club that wins this ALCS may require a whole kennel to survive it. Odorizzi's four emergency innings didn't result in a W but did preserve Houston's bullpen. In the Astros' 5-4 Game 1 win, both teams deployed eight pitchers. More bullpen games or inconsistent starters loom in Games 3-5 at Fenway Park – and diminishing returns from overworked arms may follow.
Saturday, the Red Sox got a leg up in this war of attrition. Hernández is now 16 for 32 in this postseason, instant offense always, it seems. They’ll have Eovaldi ready for a Game 6 back here next week, provided the Astros can win at least one game with Urquidy, TBA and Valdez going at Fenway Park.
Don’t etch that in stone, though. Through two games of this pitching-poor ALCS, we’ve learned everything is subject to change.
"We've called upon them a lot, but that's kind of modern baseball too. You know what
I mean?" Baker said of his bullpen. "You know, when guys aren't conditioned (to pitch) six or seven innings, it does put pressure on you.
"We have a formidable guy that we are going to depend on and trust in Urquidy on Monday. Then we'll go from there."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ALCS: Red Sox flex muscles in 9-3 win over Astros in Game 2