BOSTON — The hard chopper bounced off first baseman Mitch Moreland’s glove and high into the air. Second baseman Brock Holt jumped to glove the ball and flipped it to first, where David Price was covering.
When the Boston Red Sox needed him, Price was there.
The one-time ace came out of the bullpen in relief of Drew Pomeranz and squelched a dangerous seventh-inning rally on Saturday, helping the Red Sox beat the Houston Astros 6-3 and clinch the first back-to-back AL East titles in franchise history.
With the win, the Red Sox avoided a possible tiebreaker against the rival New York Yankees.
"That was important: Just get it done today," star Hanley Ramirez said afterward in the Red Sox clubhouse, where music blared, the lockers were covered in plastic and players wore goggles to protect their eyes from the spray of beer and domestic sparkling wine.
With the Boston win, the Yankees were left with a wild-card spot and a one-game matchup against the Minnesota Twins for the right to play Cleveland in the best-of-five AL Division Series. The Astros’ loss meant the Indians, with the tiebreaker over Houston and 101 wins entering Saturday, clinched the best record in the AL.
Boston’s win set up an immediate rematch with the AL West champion Astros in the ALDS, starting Thursday in Houston.
"This is a good team across the way. We’re a good team. We’re both division champions," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We’ll obviously see a lot of each other over the next 10 days."
Boston leads New York by two games with one to play, the remnants of what had been a five-game lead when the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park for a season-ending homestand. A loss Saturday — coupled with the Yankees’ 2-1 win over Toronto — would have forced Boston to use Chris Sale on the final day of the season to avoid a tiebreaker on Monday.
The AL East has not had needed a one-game playoff since Bucky Dent’s homer cleared the Green Monster to help the Yankees eliminate Boston in 1978.
"We get a chance to get a couple of days rest," said manager John Farrell, who scratched Sale from Sunday’s start and said Hector Velazquez will pitch instead. "Chris is deserving of a couple of extra days to just get some rest."
Mookie Betts homered and scored three times, and Pomeranz (17-6) had a two-hit shutout through six innings. With a heavy rain beginning to fall in the top of the seventh, the Astros rallied against Carson Smith and made it 5-2 before Price came in.
Farrell had said before the game that Price, who threw 24 pitches on Friday night, was unavailable. "He came in today and said, "Hey, if the situation presents itself, give me the ball,’" Farrell said.
That situation was in the seventh inning, with two in and two on, nobody out and the tying run at the plate. Price got Brian McCann on the 3-4-1 putout thanks to a fortuitous bounce, struck out Cameron Maybin and walked pinch-hitter Tyler White to load the bases.
Instead of sending pitching coach Carl Willis to the mound to discuss strategy, Farrell went himself, prompting reliever Addison Reed to run in from the bullpen, thinking he was being called upon to pitch.
"That’s the first time all year I’ve gone to the mound without making a move," Farrell said.
Price stayed in, fanning George Springer looking on three pitches to end the threat.
McCann homered off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth to make it 6-3. Maybin then doubled before Kimbrel struck out Tony Kemp and Springer to end it.
"They can shorten the game with their bullpen," Hinch said. "Especially with Price now in the ‘pen throwing the way he’s thrown the last couple times against us (and) Kimbrel, an elite closer, at the end. You’ve got to get them early and the games that we’ve had success against them we’ve done that."
ALSO OF NOTE
Pomeranz allowed one run on three hits and two walks, striking out three. … Lance McCullers (7-4), who was pitching for a spot in the post-season rotation, allowed five runs on six hits and two walks, striking out six in 4 1/3 innings. … With one hit in four at-bats, Jose Altuve’s major league-leading batting average fell one point, to .347. … Betts and Colorado’s Nolan Arenado are the only players to have at least 100 RBIs and score at least 100 runs in both 2016 and 2017. … Andrew Benintendi is the third Red Sox rookie with 20 homers and 20 steals in a season, joining Ellis Burks (1987) and Nomar Garciaparra (’97).
Astros: RF Josh Reddick (sore back) remained in Houston. He missed his third straight game.
Red Sox: 2B Dustin Pedroia was scratched on Saturday morning because of concerns over how the wet conditions might affect his sore left knee.
The teams finish out the regular season on Sunday. With all positions clinched, Dallas Keuchel will throw a simulated game instead of starting. RHP Collin McHugh (4-2) faces the righty Velazquez (3-1), who replaced Sale.