HOUSTON — Game 4 of this ALCS contained enough pivotal moments to fill a week’s worth of highlight shows.
In a game that featured 14 runs, 24 hits and a run in every inning except the ninth, a casual observer might assume that the game hinged on poor pitching and /or timely hitting.
But pitching and offense were not the story of Game 4, defense was. With one or two exceptions, the defense was played at an elite level and came into play at critical moments. The range, the glove-work, the throws — it was all on display in its glorious leather splendor, a timeless reminder that defense always plays in the postseason.
One way or another, defense always factors into October more than any other month. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times, like in Game 4, it’s much more obvious.
In this series, it’s right in front of our faces. The Astros have a particularly strong infield defense while the Red Sox’ strength is in their outfield.
Combined, everybody’s getting their money’s worth.
Bad defensive teams seldom make it deep into October.
“It’s October baseball, and with the type of teams we have, you give them more than 27 outs they’re going to take advantage of it,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before Game 5. “And I bet (Houston manager) A.J. (Hinch) and their team feels the same way — if you don’t play good defense against us, we will score a lot of runs.”
Measuring the value of defense and defenders requires relatively new metrics that have both a private and public element to them. Teams use their own systems that may or may not correlate with the UZR’s and Defensive Runs Saved you or I can look up on FanGraphs and elsewhere.
If you were to look up Astros third baseman Alex Bregman’s defensive numbers, you’d see that he was ranked in the mid-teens among all third basemen this season, with his UZR and DRS both in negative territory.
And if you watched these games, you’ll wince if you’re a Red Sox fan as you recall that he has made one standout play after another at the hot corner.
“His glove at third base, for me, is phenomenal,” said Game 5 starter Justin Verlander. “I don’t care what some metric says. I mean, my eyes — I’ve been playing this game for a long time and he’s phenomenal over there.”
Said Cora: “They’re a lot better defensively than last year. They’re turning double plays. Carlos (Correa) is playing at a high level at shortstop. What Bregman is doing defensively in this series is amazing.”
The Red Sox outfield factored prominently in Game 4, and that’s even without getting into the “home run” Jose Altuve hit that a fan prevented right fielder Mookie Betts from grabbing.
“There were two plays that Mookie made (Wednesday) night that change the game,” said Cora. “(In the third inning, with Jose) Altuve at second, there was a fly ball to right field. (Betts) makes a great throw to third base. I know Altuve is banged up but the night before he got an infield hit. He can go in a straight line. He made a great throw.
“And when Carlos (Correa) hit that down the double line (in the seventh, Betts) got to his spot, he got the ball, he got rid of it and they had to make a decision and they stopped Marwin (Gonzalez, who had been at first base) at third base. So that’s what it’s all about, the little plays.”
Sometimes the little plays are missed, like when Correa did not step on second base to start a double play in the seventh inning. That extended the inning and allowed the Red Sox to score another run.
Of course, the plays that everyone will remember first came late in the game. Tony Kemp failing his test of Betts’ arm by trying to turn a single into a double and getting thrown out for the first out of the eighth inning, and Andrew Benintendi going flat out to catch a sinking line drive off the bat of Bregman for the final out of the game.
“It’s special,” said David Price of the Red Sox’ outfield defense. “We have three center fielders in our outfield at all times. So to be able to have that, the way Benny plays the Wall in left at home especially and Jackie (Bradley) everywhere and obviously Mookie what he does in right field. I do believe we have the best outfield and I don’t think it’s close.”
Betts stated plainly the importance of defense.
“We take all the pride in the world — it wins games like it did (Wednesday),” said Betts after Game 4. “It’s just one of those things where it just takes effort. We’re all athletes that give effort.
“We’ve got guys that go out and just go out and make sure we take care of the defense at least.”