By DOUG ALDEN
BOSTON (AP) — Once again, in a key spot in October, the Boston Red Sox summoned Nathan Eovaldi from the bullpen in a tight game.
And why not? Time and time again, win or lose, the do-everything right-hander had done the job for manager Alex Cora’s club.
On Tuesday night at Fenway Park, trying to muster a little more postseason magic, he missed by just an inch or two.
Called into Game 4 of the AL Championship Series to begin the ninth inning against Houston with the score tied at 2, Eovaldi wound up allowing four runs — they all scored after a close call on a pitch that would’ve let him escape unscathed.
The Astros went on to win 9-2, tying the matchup at two games apiece.
In a playoff month already marked by curious pitching strategy and decisions throughout the majors, Cora went with a starter as his fourth reliever of the evening — it was Eovaldi’s first relief appearance since 2019.
“He was going to give us one inning and we felt right there in that pocket it was good for him,” Cora said. “I wasn’t going to use him in extra innings because then I get tempted to use him for six, so I decided to use him in the ninth, and it didn’t work.”
Plus, they’d both done this before.
Eovaldi was the starter and winner in the AL wild-card game, outpitching Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. The hard-throwing Eovaldi got a no-decision in a Game 3 start against Tampa Bay in the AL Division Series, then beat the Astros with an effective start in Game 2 last Saturday.
And the Red Sox and their fans fondly remember his inspiring effort in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series, when he pitched six-plus innings in relief for Cora at Dodger Stadium. He gave up the winning home run to Max Muncy in the 18th, but saved the bullpen as Boston went on to take the next two games and the championship.
This time, he gave up a leadoff double to Carlos Correa, but came back to strike out Kyle Tucker. After an intentional walk to Yuli Gurriel, Eovaldi fanned pinch-hitter Aledmys Díaz for the second out.
As the fans got louder and louder, Eovaldi quickly got ahead of backup catcher Jason Castro. With a 1-2 count, Eovaldi threw a backdoor breaking ball and started to walk off the mound, anticipating it would be called strike three.
“Yeah, I thought it was a strike, but, again, I’m in the moment,” Eovaldi said.
But plate umpire Laz Diaz, whose calls rankled both teams during the night, saw it as a ball, outraging Boston fans who were convinced it caught the strike zone.
Cora thought so, too.
“I got to take a look. Yeah. A lot of people thought it was a strike,” he said, adding Eovaldi was “upset” by the call.
Said Castro: “It’s a game of inches.”
Castro fouled off the next fastball before lining an RBI single to right-center that put the Astros ahead.
Eovaldi walked Jose Altuve, loading the bases, and was pulled. Martín Pérez relieved and gave up a three-run double to Michael Brantley, and Houston kept pouring it on from there.
“You’re going to get calls that go your way and some that don’t go your way,” Eovaldi said. “Our job is to go out there and keep attacking the zone. Whether we get a pitch that goes our way or it doesn’t, we have to move on to the next pitch and not let it affect us and keep attacking the strike zone.”
It wasn’t the first time a call was openly questioned in the game. In the third inning, Cora intervened after J.D. Martinez began arguing a called third strike that the Red Sox slugger maintained was ball four.
Martinez initially started toward first base, then turned toward Diaz and let him know he wasn’t happy with the call. Cora got out of the dugout in time to take over the argument, protecting his star DH and putting himself at risk of getting tossed.
Cora grew more agitated with the call and with Diaz, turning around toward home plate once again before third-base coach Carlos Febles intercepted him.
Cora continued arguing with Diaz, who himself was visibly agitated and gestured to Cora with his arms outstretched.
“I got to take a look at the video and see how it went. I haven’t had a chance to take a look at it,” Cora said. “I really disagreed with the one early on. It was the third inning, and 3-2 count. J.D. is very — he doesn’t argue too much, and the way he reacted, you know, I had to jump right away. I don’t want him to get thrown out.”
Cora said he’s known Diaz since he was umpiring college games while Cora played at Miami and acknowledged it’s a difficult job. But he still didn’t like the call.
“I didn’t agree with the J.D. call. I didn’t,” Cora said.
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