Controversy swirled around the fourth game of the American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox long before Andrew Benintendi made a game-saving dive to end a four-hour, 33-minute battle of wills at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday.
A man in a 1984 Republican presidential campaign hat and bright orange shirt stood at the center of the storm.
With a runner on first base in the first inning of an eventual 8-6 Red Sox win, designated hitter Jose Altuve hit a long fly ball against Red Sox starter Rick Porcello. It seemed to chart a course for the stands, a missile that had the man locked as its target.
But the ball flew just low enough for right fielder Mookie Betts to try to catch it at the wall. Betts perfectly timed a jump and stuck out his glove, only to have the ball glance off it for an apparent home run.
Only, it wasn’t a home run. The ball bounced back to the field as right-field umpire and crew chief Joe West called an out on the play. He ruled fan interference by the man in the orange shirt, judging on sight that the man had forced Betts’ glove closed when he tried to catch the ball.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch trotted out of the first-base dugout to question West. West called for a video review, but umpires in New York ruled that the call stood. They did not have enough evidence to overturn the ruling, a conclusion that sent the announced crowd of 43,277 into a tizzy.
Although the ruling robbed the Astros of a tying home run, it mattered little at the end of a back-and-forth affair.
“It’s convenient to think about it that way,” Hinch said. “But there’s a lot of game left. There was a lot of action in that game. No, I’m not going to go there. But it would have been nice to tie the game at that point.”
The Astros still managed to hit Porcello hard. They knocked him around for seven hits and four runs in four innings. At 68 pitches, Red Sox manager Alex Cora determined Porcello was not sharp enough to remain in the game. Although he wanted to save David Price for a start in Game 5 in the place of ill ace Chris Sale, Cora chose to deploy his relief corps early. He hedged a bet that Price would not need to come out of the bullpen.
Veteran reliever Joe Kelly relinquished a run when Carlos Correa shot a two-out single into left field to give the Astros a 5-4 lead in the fifth. But everyone else that emerged from the Red Sox bullpen validated Cora’s tactics.
The Red Sox, who took the lead for good when Jackie Bradley Jr. collected his eighth and ninth RBIs of the series on a two-run homer in the sixth, are now one victory shy of clinching their first American League pennant since 2013.
“It was back and forth the whole game,” Benintendi said. “Every time, I think, they scored, we scored the next inning. … It was a fun game to be a part of, definitely one of my favorite games we’ve played. Good win.”
When the Astros failed to scratch together much else, it was natural to wonder if those two first-inning runs might have made a difference. But the World Series defending champion Astros, who had entered this ALCS on the heels of a dominating first-round sweep of the Cleveland Indians, faltered in front of their home crowd for a second straight night.
For two days, the Astros’ “Never Settle” slogan was brandished on banners in front of sellout crowds. The first was stretched over the center of the diamond by guests during Tuesday’s pregame ceremonies; the second was whipped back and forth on a pole by Astros mascot Orbit before Wednesday night’s marathon.
The Astros appeared to take heed of the frenzied rallying. They clawed across four runs in three innings, took their first ALCS lead since the third inning of their Game 2 loss in Boston and overcame the Red Sox tying the game on an aggressive two-out send-home of Benintendi in the fifth inning.
It was not enough. The Astros squandered too many opportunities, stranding 13 runners.
Trailing by two runs in the seventh inning, pinch-hitter Tyler White stranded two runners in scoring position when he was caught looking at Matt Barnes’ belt-high curveball that dropped in over the plate. The strikeout ended the inning.
Having pushed across one run against closer Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning, the Astros left another runner at third base when Marwin Gonzalez grounded out to end that frame.
Yet, that wasn’t the Astros’ final chance at a comeback. Kimbrel issued back-to-back walks with one out in the ninth, and loaded the bases with a two-out walk to bring up Alex Bregman, a dangerous young hitter who inspires “MVP” chants every time he steps to the plate at Minute Maid.
Bregman jumped on Kimbrel’s first-pitch fastball and hit it on a line to left field. It was shot just low enough to incite a deafening roar from those remaining in the crowd. But Benintendi played the sinking line drive perfectly, capturing it as he splayed out on his stomach for the final out.
“We do feel that we have the best outfield in the big leagues,” Cora said. “The effort by Mookie on the ball at the wall, the effort on the Tony Kemp ball down the line [in the eighth inning] and then Beni taking a chance there. Those three guys, when they’re together, they’re pretty special.
“And that was an interesting game, to say the least. But I’m glad that we ended up winning. It was a complete team effort. And that’s what it’s all about.”
The Astros will fight for their postseason lives Thursday night in Houston.