The 2004 Boston Red Sox inspired a library’s worth of books, special edition magazines and documentaries recounting their miraculous run to World Series champions. That team, affectionately known as “The Idiots,” ended the franchise’s 86-year-old World Series drought. Breaking the curse made them one of the most famous and beloved teams in baseball history.
Now the 2020 Houston Astros are trying to match one of Boston’s historic achievements: The Red Sox are the only team in major league postseason history to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first three games. The Astros forced Saturday’s Game 7 with a 7-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday at Petco Park in San Diego.
The Astros, of course, do not have a cute nickname. Baseball fans around the country might have another name for them, but it’s definitely not cute. The Red Sox rallied to beat the New York Yankees, not only their sworn enemy but a team that had played in six of the previous eight World Series. The Astros are trying to knock off the scrappy, low-payroll Rays, a franchise with 27 fewer World Series titles than the Yankees.
The Astros are aware of the history they’re chasing. Alex Bregman made his teammates watch the “Four Days in October” documentary on the Red Sox before Game 5. Well, some of his teammates anyway; Michael Brantley said he hadn’t heard about it. Still, with the Astros on the brink of matching Boston’s feat, let’s see what kind of comparisons we can find between what happened in 2004 and what the Astros are doing in 2020.
The first three games
Think of all the mental baggage the Red Sox had to deal with: They were fighting the curse; they had lost a heartbreaking 2003 American League Championship Series to the Yankees in seven games; and then the Yankees trounced them in the first three games in 2004 by scores of 10-7, 3-1 and 19-8. On top of that, staff ace Curt Schilling was battling an ankle injury and had been bombed in Game 1. The Red Sox didn’t know if he’d pitch again in the series.
The Astros have their own baggage with the offseason cheating revelation that made them the most hated team in the majors (and their own ace, Justin Verlander, has been out since August after Tommy John surgery). One big difference here is that they had been close in the first three games. Jose Altuve made two crucial throwing errors, and the Rays played outstanding defense, especially in Game 3; but the Astros pitched well, and they not only outhit the Rays 26-18 but hit the ball harder more often.
The Red Sox had a carefree attitude, and perhaps being down 3-0 put less pressure on them. They also knew they were as good as the Yankees, after going 11-8 against them in the regular season.
The Astros knew they just needed a few breaks to start going their way and that while luck doesn’t always even out in a short series, if they kept hitting the ball hard, good results were bound to happen.
“So far things really haven’t been going our way,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said after Game 3. “We really have our backs up against the wall. It is a steep mountain to climb, but it is not impossible. We just have to tighten our belts, put our big boy pants on and come out fighting tomorrow.”
In Game 4 of the ALCS, Dave Roberts swipes second base for the Red Sox, which set up the game-tying run and remarkable series comeback.
Despite the positive attitude heading into the game, the Red Sox found themselves down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth with the invincible Mariano Rivera in the game. You know what happened. Kevin Millar led off with a five-pitch walk. Pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second — barely — and Bill Mueller singled him home. Forgotten: David Ortiz popped out with the bases loaded to end the inning. Ortiz delivered three innings later, however, with a walk-off, two-run home run off Paul Quantrill.
Most teams don’t even get to a Game 5. Of the 39 best-of-seven series that were 3-0, 28 ended up in sweeps. Most teams, after a long season, are physically tired and mentally exhausted, and winning four in a row against a good team could feel futile.
The Astros took an early 2-0 lead, the Rays tied it, but then George Springer hit a two-run home run off Tyler Glasnow in the fifth inning — the winning blow in the eventual 4-3 victory. Indeed, Houston’s luck finally turned in the ninth when Willy Adames‘ RBI double off the wall in left-center missed being a game-tying home run by just a few feet.
Springer went 3-for-4 in the game, while Altuve went 2-for-4 with a home run and double. The Red Sox had Ortiz, one of the most clutch postseason hitters of all time, but the Astros have Springer and Altuve. Check out the career postseason lines for the three (entering Game 6 for Springer and Altuve):
Springer: .274/.353/.560, 19 HRs in 252 ABs
Altuve: .298/.368/.560, 18 HRs in 248 ABs
Ortiz: .289/.404/.543, 17 HRs in 304 ABs
Astros players held a pregame meeting, but Baker even laughed that off a bit after the game. “I think us as a society, we meet sometimes too much. All we do is state the obvious,” Baker said. “We are in the process of about to be eliminated if we lose this game tonight, nobody is ready to go home, we are ready to go to Dallas.” In other words, it’s about talking with your bats, and it was no surprise that Houston’s versions of David Ortiz came through with the big hits.
Only three of those 39 teams that were down 3-0 had pushed it to six games before the Astros. The Red Sox pulled off another dramatic victory, winning 5-4 in 14 innings on Ortiz’s two-out, walk-off single. The Yankees actually led 4-2 entering the bottom of the eighth, but Ortiz homered off Tom Gordon, Millar walked and Trot Nixon singled. Only then did Rivera come into the game, giving up the tying run on a sacrifice fly. Maybe if Joe Torre brought Rivera in for a two-inning save — like the manager often did — things would have turned out differently. Rivera had thrown 40 pitches in Game 4, however, and Gordon had been outstanding that year.
The big difference between the Red Sox and Astros? The Red Sox had a pretty good No. 2 starter going in Game 5: Pedro Martinez. Dusty Baker had to improvise and go with a bullpen game, electing to avoid starting Framber Valdez on short rest and keeping No. 5 starter Cristian Javier in relief. The first five pitchers Baker used were rookies. The Rays hit three home runs, but all were solo shots. Springer homered in the first inning, and then Correa came up in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied.
Correa called his shot: “When I went into that at-bat, I told Altuve walking off the field [that] ‘I’m gonna end it.’ I could feel that my swing was in sync, I could feel that my rhythm was good, I could feel that I wanted to drive the ball and I felt like I could do it.”
He did. And just like that, all the momentum was now in Houston’s favor. They were still alive, they had their top starter ready for Game 6, the hits were falling and the pressure was now on Tampa Bay.
As it turned out, Schilling was able to pitch again. One important — and often forgotten — note about the 2004 series is that Game 3 was initially rained out, so the final five games were played over five days, with no off day before Game 6. Due to the rainout, Martinez was able to start Game 5 on regular rest, allowing Schilling to be pushed back another day. Schilling had a temporary procedure performed on his ankle, so this was the famous Bloody Sock game. He allowed one run over seven innings, Mark Bellhorn hit a three-run home run and the Red Sox won 4-2.
Refusing to panic in Game 5 meant Baker was able to start Valdez on full rest. Again, there was some luck here. If Game 5 had gone to the 10th inning, Baker said Valdez would have entered. Correa’s home run not only won Game 5, but it arguably won Game 6, as well. Valdez allowed one run in six innings, and Kevin Cash’s quick hook of starter Blake Snell in the fifth inning after a walk and base hit backfired as the Astros scored four runs to take a 4-1 lead.
Both managers in 2004 were in a bind. Terry Francona had no clear option. His rotation had gone Schilling, Martinez, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe, Martinez and Schilling. Arroyo had pitched an inning of relief in Game 6. Francona went with Lowe on two days’ rest. Torre’s rotation had gone Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown, Orlando Hernandez, Mussina and Lieber. Javier Vazquez was the solid fifth starter, but he had thrown 96 pitches in relief of Brown in Game 3 after Brown lasted just two innings. The game eventually turned into a blowout, but Torre ended up burning two starting pitchers. Brown had thrown just 57 pitches, so Torre went with him on three days’ rest. Bad choice. Ortiz — yes, again — hit a two-run homer in the first; and with the bases loaded in the second, Vazquez replaced Brown, and Johnny Damon greeted him with a grand slam. The Red Sox won 10-3.
For the Astros and Rays, neither Baker nor Cash are in the same scramble mode with their pitching staffs. Game 2 starters Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton will be on regular rest. Because Game 6 turned into a decisive loss, the Rays were able to save all their top relievers, with the exception of Diego Castillo, who threw 14 pitches. Manuel Margot‘s two-run home run in the eighth forced Baker to use closer Ryan Pressly for the third straight day, so that’s a minor issue; but Pressly had a quick, nine-pitch inning, and he has thrown 39 pitches over those three games. He’ll be ready.
But like the game at Yankee Stadium in 2004, you wonder if it will come down to the first two innings and not the ninth. You could see the dichotomy in emotions on one play in the sixth inning of Game 6. It was 5-1 at the time, but the Rays put two on with one out against Valdez, who had just walked Yandy Diaz, with the two exchanging words after Diaz barked at Valdez after ball four. Valdez was now approaching 100 pitches and tiring, but he induced Brandon Lowe to hit into a double play, Lowe slamming his helmet down on the ground as he crossed over first base. Valdez pumped his first and celebrated with Correa and Altuve as he walked off the field. After that play, I texted a friend, “This series is over.”
I know. Baseball isn’t supposed to be like that. Momentum is a word used by writers and pundits, not players. But the frustration for the Rays is there. We can see it.
“They are frustrated. We are all frustrated,” Cash said. “I don’t think they are tensing up. I think they are recognizing that we got an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special. And have confidence that we can find ways to really compete and get the bats going, score some runs for Charlie and find a way to win.”
Diaz’s act of hubris reminded me off the infamous Alex Rodriguez-Bronson Arroyo incident from Game 6 in 2004, when Rodriguez swatted the ball out of Arroyo’s glove and was called out for interference. As with Diaz, the thought was, “What was he thinking? Why are you shouting at the opponent after drawing a walk?” Similarly, when Snell was removed, he mouthed the words, “What the f— are we doing?” Mike Zunino snapped his bat after a strikeout. That 3-0 series lead feels like a long time ago.
“We are relentless, and when we say we don’t want to go home, we really meant that. We want to keep playing baseball, and we don’t want this to be the end of our season,” Correa said. “We took care of these three games, and now we got to care of one more. If we don’t win that game, then this all meant nothing. We have to go out there tomorrow and get that win.”