Scraps of foil lined the trimming of the hallway walls leading into a Minute Maid Park clubhouse Thursday night.
They were not shredded by the hands of the Houston Astros, who hosted Game 5 of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series and the two nail-biting affairs that came before it.
In the moments after clinching a 4-1 victory and a place in the 2018 World Series, the Boston Red Sox had made this mess. They had torn the wrappers off dozens of bottles of Chandon California Brut champagne, sprayed each other and hapless members of the media who’d wandered into the visiting locker room, and celebrated a series victory in enemy territory for the second time this postseason.
For the first time since winning the title in 2013, and in the first year of rookie manager Alex Cora’s tenure, the Red Sox were heading back to the World Series.
Which meant ALCS most valuable player Jackie Bradley Jr. could stand in the center of the clubhouse, goggles covering his eyes as champagne bottles and cans of Samuel Adams 76 were emptied over his head.
“We’re not perfect,” said Cora, who turned 43 Thursday. “That’s the cool thing about this team. We feel that we can keep improving. And we have one more series to go.”
The Astros fell behind early, though it was not entirely Houston starter Justin Verlander’s fault. He carved through the Red Sox lineup the first five innings of the game. The only damage came when home plate umpire Chris Guccione called an apparent third strike in the bottom right corner of the zone a ball. J.D. Martinez crushed the next pitch, a hanging curveball, for a home run and a 1-0 Red Sox lead in the third inning.
But the sixth inning did in Verlander, the ace of an Astros rotation that had a league-best 3.16 earned-run averagethis year. Mitch Moreland hit a leadoff double to the wall in left field, Ian Kinsler followed with a single to right, and then Rafael Devers, a 21-year-old playing in his second straight postseason, thwacked the first October home run of his career. The ball soared into the Crawford Boxes in left field as Devers rounded first base with his right fist pumping the air.
It was all the offense the Red Sox needed. Their pitchers did the rest.
David Price, for all his previous ineffectiveness as a starting pitcher in the postseason, threw six scoreless innings of three-hit baseball on short rest. He struck out nine Astros, walked none and for the first time in 12 career starts in the playoffs earned a victory.
Game 3 starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, a 2008 Dodgers draft pick whose 10-year professional career led him to the Red Sox at the trade deadline this summer, came out of the bullpen after reliever Matt Barnes gave up a home run and delivered four easy outs to hand the ball over to embattled closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel issued a one-out walk on four straight upper-90s fastballs, then threw six more pitches to deliver three outs and a trip to the World Series. On the Red Sox active roster, 18 players had never reached the Fall Classic, including nine-year veteran Kimbrel.
“We have now,” he said. “Here we come. We can check that off the list.”
With his toddler son, Xavier, squirming on his lap, Price was asked how he’d describe this night, the one that sent Price back to the World Series for the first time since his rookie year in 2008, to his child in the future.
“It’s one of the most special days I’ve ever had on the baseball field,” he said.
It came at the expense of the Astros, a team favored by most to repeat as World Series champions despite the Red Sox entering the postseason with a franchise-record 108 wins.
The Game 5 version of the Astros was not the one that deserted 13 runners and squandered unfathomable opportunities to score, like they did in a Game 4 loss. This was an Astros team that was dominated by a Red Sox squad.
Even Astros fans knew it. Except for the few times the Astros put runners on base, the announced crowd of 43,210 rarely drowned out the music and commands streaming from the PA system. The fans rumbled, sure, but at a low din, the kind you’d hear at a sold-out regular-season game. The noise barely resembled the roaring of games three and four; there were no “MVP” chants following Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to the plate, no dome-shuddering boos.
The fans woke up for the first time with two outs in the fourth inning. Yuli Gurriel fouled off the first six pitches of his second at-bat against Price and got himself into a 2-2 count. Price hadn’t thrown more than six pitches to any of the previous 13 batters he’d faced. Gurriel forced Price to make a ninth pitch and cracked it for a double to left field.
But Gurriel was stranded, the third of six Astros runners left to waste on the basepaths during their final game of the year.
“It’s not easy,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who led the defending World Series champion Astros to a franchise-record 103 wins. “But it’s a pretty hollow feeling when the season abruptly ends the way that it does and the way that it did.”
As the innings wore on, fans were subdued. They dutifully participated in “Let’s go, Astros” chants, twirled towels and applauded. When Marwin Gonzalez launched a two-out solo homer off Barnes into the Crawford Boxes to shrink the Red Sox advantage to three runs in the seventh, the din crescendoed. The same occurred when Gurriel drew a walk from Kimbrel in the ninth.
The Astros offered little reward.
So, the Astros and their fans watched the Red Sox rush the center of the diamond and converge on the mound for their first photo opportunity as American League Pennant winners.
And the 35 cases of champagne and a spot on baseball’s biggest stage were left to the Red Sox.
“This is what we set out to do when we come to spring training,” said Bradley Jr, who drove in nine runs with two homers and a double and scored three of Boston’s 29 runs in the series. “And we battled – we’ve been battle-tested, played against a lot of great ball teams. This is definitely a special moment.”