Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch sat on a dais in front of a sparse crowd of reporters on Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park and called Boston Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts a ticking time bomb.
Betts, the presumptive American League most-valuable-player award winner, had gone cold during the opening round of the playoffs. He batted just .188 (three for 16) as the Red Sox dispatched the New York Yankees in four games of the American League Division Series.
In Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, the Astros were so effective neutralizing Betts that he couldn’t do damage with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. He weakly rolled a ground ball to third base, leading to a forceout at the plate in an eventual Red Sox loss.
Betts had become a nonfactor, so a reporter questioned Hinch about his team’s approach with Betts.
Hinch shook him off.
“He’s a threat to do a lot of different things,” he said. “So I’m not really going to go over what our pitch approach is going to be to him. But the less of those [bases-loaded] at-bats that we can get, the better, because he’s a ticking time bomb to do some kind of damage.”
Betts exploded hours later. He hit two doubles and scored two runs in the Red Sox’s 7-5 victory over the Astros in Game 2 of the ALCS.
“I saw him smiling today, which is always good,” first-year manager Alex Cora said. “When Mookie’s smiling, good things are happening.”
Thousands of fans in the announced sold-out crowd of 37,960 spent the final two innings on their feet. Betts contributed, in part, to their elation.
Fans also hollered as Rick Porcello, a starting pitcher who Cora turned to as his setup man, struck out Marwin Gonzalez and Carlos Correa to cap a perfect eighth inning.
They chanted “MVP” as Betts knocked an RBI double off Astros reliever Josh James to cushion what had been a 6-4 Red Sox lead in the bottom of the eighth.
And when left fielder Andrew Benintendi captured the game’s final out at the wall, they warbled the words to the Red Sox’s anthem “Dirty Water.”
The Red Sox have new life in the ALCS. The best-of-seven series, now tied 1-1, continues Tuesday at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
“I knew we’ve been really good at turning the page,” Betts said. “And there’s no sense in stopping [now]. We went out and did our thing today.”
Both teams’ starters labored in the early innings. Gerrit Cole faced eight Red Sox batters and gave up two runs in the first inning. David Price came out for the second with a lead and gave both runs back on a George Springer double down the line in right field.
The back-and-forth continued until Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. smacked a bases-clearing double off the wall that eluded left fielder Gonzalez in the third. Three runs scored to give the Red Sox a 5-4 lead and erase the damage Gonzalez had inflicted minutes earlier when he pulverized an inside pitch from Price for a two-run homer that would have bounced onto the street behind left field if not for a billboard blocking its path.
No one scored again until the seventh inning, after both Price and Cole had put away their gloves and relinquished control of the mound. Only Cole factored into the decision; he took the loss after retiring the final 10 batters he faced to cap his six-inning performance.
Price, the 10-year veteran who entered the game winless in 10 previous postseason starts, did not qualify for this victory. He only pitched 42/3 innings, one out shy of the minimum. Manager Alex Cora relieved Price after he issued two walks in the fifth inning.
But for the first time in his career, Price’s team won a postseason game he started.
“If it’s baby steps, it’s baby steps,” Price said. “I expect to win. But I’m very happy that we won.”
Less than 24 hours after enduring sloppy play in a series-opening loss, the Red Sox took advantage of the Astros’ miscues to secure a win.
Lance McCullers Jr., who entered the game in relief of Cole, watched Betts score an unearned run without ever allowing a ball to be put in play. Betts had walked to lead off the frame, and he made it around the bases on a series of passed balls and wild pitches that catcher Martin Maldonado mishandled.
“It’s a little uncharacteristic,” Hinch said. “Looked like Martin either lost [the pitch] in the people in center field or just got a little bit … I don’t want to say lax back there, but just had a tough time.”
Maldonado’s teammates couldn’t pick him up. The Red Sox bullpen, which had caused Cora trouble during the regular season, continued its postseason redemption tour. Boston relievers retired 13 of the Astros’ final 16 batters.
Only closer Craig Kimbrel, who gave up back-to-back hits to George Springer and Jose Altuve with two outs in the ninth inning, yielded a run.
It was too little, too late.