The question, of course, is obvious: what has changed? How have the Red Sox gone from Games 2 and 3, when they scored 21 runs and hit three grand slams, to Games 4 and 5, when they have scored three runs and been silenced?
Among the potential answers: strike one.
If it seems elementary, it is. But it works. Houston starter Framber Valdez pitched eight sterling innings against the Red Sox in Houston’s Game 5 win last night, and he had the Red Sox on their heels from the start. Valdez threw 8-of-9 first-pitch strikes on his first trip through the Boston order, dueling Chris Sale before the Red Sox cracked in an eventual 9-1 Houston win that pushed the Sox to the brink of winter.
Said Astros manager Dusty Baker of Valdez: “He threw — he didn’t mess around forcing that breaking ball, like he had the last couple starts, and then getting behind. He was attacking the strike zone.”
Now compare that with Game 1, when Valdez seemed to needlessly “mess around” with his breaking ball, as Baker aptly put it. In that game, he threw just 5-of-16 first-pitch strikes. In Game 2, Luis Garcia was just 3-for-8. In Game 3, Jose Urquidy was a wretched 5-of-13. Add it all up and Astros were a combined 13-of-37, which is suicide against any lineup, especially one like the Red Sox have.
This year, the Red Sox his .299 with a 1.041 OPS when ahead in the count; when behind, the numbers dropped to .215 and .586. The numbers in the playoffs have been even more pronounced, Boston batting a whopping .371 with a 1.262 OPS when ahead, just .191 with a .475 OPS when behind.
Know when Game 4 changed? When Houston reliever Cristian Javier entered. Of the first seven batters he faced, Javier threw first-pitch strikes to six of them. The Red Sox stopped hitting. Last night, Valdez threw first-pitch fastballs to all nine Red Sox hitters on his first trip through the lineup – again, eight of them were strikes – and that opened up all kinds of possibilities. In his first at-bat, Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez struck out after chasing a pair of breaking balls down in the dirt, something he wasn’t doing earlier in the series.
How will the Red Sox adjust? Good question. Houston has yet to name a starter for tomorrow night’s Game 6. The Red Sox need to regain leverage in the batter’s box, but swinging at too many first pitches is a risky proposition. Meanwhile, Sox manager Alex Cora has said he has no intention of changing his starting lineup, the only significant change potentially being the insertion of Bobby Dalbec.
But if one had to guess, you can bank on the Sox probably changing something else, at a least a little – and that’s their approach.