BOSTON — It was the kind of expert curveball that can make a pitcher a lot of money. It left Nathan Eovaldi’s fingertips just so, bent through the air and landed in Christian Vázquez’s glove. It crossed home plate perhaps exactly as Eovaldi intended it to, on the outside edge, dotting the upper, far corner of the strike zone.
That is how it looked to Eovaldi, who was pitching in relief, and to Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, to most of the Red Sox players and perhaps millions of their fans.
But the most important man saw it differently. To Laz Diaz, the home plate umpire working Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the pitch was high (it certainly was not wide, because the overhead replay view showed the ball clearly traveled over home plate).
The count was 1-2 to Jason Castro at the time, with two outs and two men on base in the ninth inning, with the score tied, 2-2. If Diaz had called a strike, that half inning would have been over and Boston would have come to bat in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win it there, with 38,010 fans urging them on.
But Diaz’s arm never came up. He called the pitch a ball, prolonging the at-bat, and potentially the series. Two pitches later, Castro drove a split-finger fastball from Eovaldi into center field for a single, and Carlos Correa scored from second base to give the Houston Astros the lead for good.
“I felt like I made a good pitch on the outside corner, but it didn’t go my way,” Eovaldi said. “But I’ve got to come back and answer back and make a good pitch.”
From there, Houston unleashed a long-awaited offensive outburst, pounding out seven runs, all in the top of the ninth, to beat Boston, 9-2, and even the series, two games apiece. Game 5 is Wednesday at Fenway Park, after which the series will shift back to Houston on Friday, at least for a Game 6.
As much as Boston fans may lament the decision, the game was still tied when Diaz called the pitch a ball, and there was no guarantee that the Red Sox would score. But by the time they came to bat in the bottom of the inning, the game was well out of hand.
“If it’s a strike it changes the whole thing, right?” Cora said. “But I think we had chances early on. They did an outstanding job with the bullpen. We didn’t do enough offensively, and now we go to Game 5.”
The Red Sox took the lead, 2-1, in the first inning on Xander Bogaerts’s two-run homer off Zack Greinke, the Astros starter. At that point, the “Groundhog Day” feeling that Houston Manager Dusty Baker alluded to on Monday — after watching Boston hit three grand slams in the previous two games — might have been creeping back to him. Instead, the game was decided by good pitching, with Houston’s reliever throwing seven and two-thirds scoreless innings.
Boston still led going into the top of the eighth, when Jose Altuve rocketed a pitch from Garrett Whitlock over a giant advertisement atop the left field wall to even the score and bring the dormant Astros bench to life.
In the top of the ninth, Cora called upon Eovaldi, the Game 2 starter and Boston’s best pitcher, with the idea that he would hold the Astros for one inning and the Boston offense would surge back to life in the bottom half of it.
But Carlos Correa led off with a double to right field. Eovaldi struck out Kyle Tucker and then intentionally walked Yuli Gurriel. He struck out Aledmys Diaz and that brought the left-handed Castro to the plate with two on and two out.
Castro had only entered the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-hitter.
“I admire it,” Correa said, “because I will tell you, I won’t be able to do it. Sitting down for that long and going out there against a guy throwing 100 at crunchtime. That’s special.”
Castro fouled off a 98-mile-per-hour fastball to make the count 1-2, and then just about froze when he saw the curveball coming in high, just before it dipped into that debatable quadrant on the far corner.
“Because of where it’s coming from, it’s never in the zone until maybe at the very end,” Castro said, perhaps conceding that it should have been called a strike. “It’s one of those pitches that’s tough to get called, or to even make it look like a strike.”
His gamble to watch the pitch instead of swing at it paid off, and Eovaldi and the Red Sox pitchers never recovered. A dozen batters came to the plate in the half inning.
There was some grumbling about Diaz’s strike zone during the game. Cora had to be restrained while vehemently arguing a called third strike against J.D. Martinez in the third inning, which made him wary of doing so later, when it mattered far more.
“I told him, I said, ‘I’m not going to get thrown out of this game, but we thought it was a strike,’” Cora said, “and he disagreed with us.”
And Diaz, of course, was the one who decided.
Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.