A whole lot went right for the American League’s two 100-win teams Thursday, as the ALDS opened in Houston and Cleveland.
Jose Altuve hit three late-afternoon home runs in support of Justin Verlander, and Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer shut New York’s lineup down completely a couple of hours later. It was a rough night for the Yankees, who collected just three hits, but their division rivals had an even worse day. Not only did the Red Sox watch their ace falter in Houston, they lost a key player to injury.
Some observations from the first day of ALDS action…
FRANCONA’S MOVES WORK
Terry Francona made two unconventional moves ahead of Thursday’s game, and both worked out perfectly.
First of all, Francona started Jason Kipnis in centre field even though he had just 11 career starts there. In the third inning, Kipnis got his first test and he responded with an impressive diving catch in left-centre.
That play came in support of Bauer, tabbed by Francona to start Game 1 even though conventional wisdom called for staff ace Corey Kluber in the opener. The move allows Kluber to start Games 2 and 5 on regular rest but demanded a lot of Bauer, Cleveland’s third-best starter.
Bauer responded with an impressive outing that sets Cleveland up perfectly for the remainder of the ALDS. The right-hander pitched 6.2 scoreless innings while striking out eight (and making his manager look good).
ALTUVE’S EXTRAORDINARY NIGHT
Jose Altuve’s nothing if not dependable. He’s consistent from season to season, with 200-plus hits in four consecutive years. He’s consistent within the season, too, with a .347/.417/.551 first-half batting line and a .344/.401/.543 second-half batting line this year.
Safe to say, then, that we have a pretty good idea what to expect from Altuve. That’s why his three-homer game was as surprising as it was impressive. Altuve had never hit three homers in a big-league game until Thursday, but his power outburst led Houston to a decisive Game 1 win.
Two of Altuve’s homers came against Chris Sale, who allowed seven runs in his post-season debut. As Sale put it afterwards, “It’s a bad time to suck.”
AUGUST TRADES PAYING OFF
Two months ago, Justin Verlander pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Jay Bruce played for the New York Mets. By then the non-waiver trade deadline had passed, seemingly eliminating the possibility that more major trades would be completed.
Instead, Cleveland acquired Bruce on Aug. 9, outbidding the Yankees by agreeing to take on all the money remaining on Bruce’s $13-million contract. Three weeks later Houston acquired Verlander and agreed to pay $20 million of his salary each of the next two years.
On Thursday those moves paid off in a big way. Bruce doubled, drove in a run with a sac fly and hit a two-run home run while Verlander limited the Red Sox to two runs in six innings. Each performance was a crucial part of a Game 1 ALDS win.
QUESTIONS FOR THE RED SOX
Speaking of mid-season acquisitions, Eduardo Nunez will miss the rest of the ALDS after re-aggravating his right knee injury. Hanley Ramirez went two for three as his in-game replacement, but losing Nunez’s versatility and speed will still be a blow for the Red Sox, who activated Chris Young late Thursday.
Also worth noting: the injury, described as “acute” by MLB, could impact Nunez’s prospects in free agency this fall.
EASY TO OVERLOOK
One of the moments that stood out to me was the exchange between Joe Kelly and Marwin Gonzalez in the sixth inning. Kelly, the hard-throwing Red Sox reliever, had just replaced Sale with two runners on and nobody out. A single by Yuli Gurriel loaded the bases and in stepped Gonzalez for a telling exchange in which three different players impressed.
When Kelly’s pitches crossed the plate, Gonzalez wasted them, fouling off two-strike offerings four different times. When Kelly missed, catcher Sandy Leon picked him up, blocking breaking balls in the dirt with his bare hand to keep Evan Gattis at third. And nine pitches later, when Kelly realized that Gonzalez could handle the hard stuff as well as the breaking stuff, he threw a 3-2 change-up to strike him out.
Psycho Joe Kelly, Nasty 3-2 85mph changeup. pic.twitter.com/RtzNz4eWpR
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 5, 2017
By then the game had already been decided, but in that moment, Gonzalez, Leon and Kelly all impressed in their own ways.