Verlander's Astros in ALCS, Sale's Red Sox going home after bizarre bullpen battle

BOSTON -- A few days ago, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch was asked how he is handling the pressure of baseball's postseason.

"I'm a nervous wreck," Hinch said, smiling and laughing. "Can't you tell?"

On Monday, it appeared that Hinch might not have been joking. Well, not entirely.

Never mind that the Astros were leading by one run in the fifth inning of Game 4 or that they had a one-game edge in the best-of-five American League Division Series or that they wound up winning 5-4 and moving on to the AL Championship Series. Hinch turned ace starter Justin Verlander into a human panic button, bringing him in for his first relief appearance in a 13-year professional career.

"I don't even think since Little League I've done that," Verlander said later from a champagne- and cigar smoke-filled Astros clubhouse.

When Verlander hung a slider that Red Sox rookie Andrew Benintendi launched into the right-field seats for a go-ahead two-run homer, it seemed that Hinch might stand alongside New York Yankees skipper Joe Girardi in this year's club of smart managers who inexplicably lose their minds in the postseason.

But the Red Sox helped take Hinch off the hook in the eighth inning by not giving the hook to Chris Sale, their own ace-turned-reliever. Sale had already thrown four scoreless innings -- a carbon copy of David Price's masterful Game 3 performance -- and Addison Reed and closer Craig Kimbrel were available for as many as nine outs, according to manager John Farrell's pregame plan.

Rather than watching the rest of the game on TV with Farrell, who was ejected in the second inning by plate umpire Mark Wegner for trying to protect Dustin Pedroia in an argument over a called third strike, Sale went back out for the eighth and gave up a game-tying leadoff homer to Alex Bregman.

"I felt good, I felt strong," said Sale, who was a reliever during his first two seasons in the big leagues but was making his first appearance out of the bullpen since May 8, 2012. "I wish I could have got it done.”

Said Farrell, "Chris was one day short of his normal rest, so he was in good shape from a physical standpoint. As efficient and as pinpoint as his control was to that point, he was still in good shape, I thought."

The postseason has a strange effect on people's thinking. It can make a good hitter second-guess himself, as Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts seemed to do en route to going 1-for-17 in the series. It can turn Kimbrel, only the game's most lights-out closer all season, into a puddle who allowed Josh Reddick's go-ahead single in the eighth inning and another run in the ninth.

And managers? Faced with the potential rewards and consequences of a short postseason series, there's no telling what might happen, from Girardi's failure to challenge a third strike that was ruled a hit batter to Hinch's using a pitcher in a role he has never played.

"It's very easy to go to the bullpen and leave Justin Verlander out of it," Hinch said. "But our job's to try to win. It's not to try to lose. When it doesn't work out, as long as I'm prepared, as long as I feel like I did the right thing by what our plan was, then I can live with the result. Doesn't make you feel any better when Benintendi's running around the bases. That's a pretty low moment for a manager, probably just under the pitcher. But I'm proud of the fight that these guys have, and quite honestly, it's just a staple of who we are."

Hinch admitted that he was concerned about taking Verlander out of his normal routine as a starter. But he also explained that his interest in using Verlander in relief stemmed from an uncertain weather forecast. Although Major League Baseball officials were determined to start the game on time, the potential for heavy rain later in the afternoon left a strong chance of an interruption. Knowing that starter Charlie Morton might have to come out after a rain delay, Hinch wanted Verlander ready.

"It ended up the rain came on and off again, and once I saw Sale pitch before any sort of rain delay -- [the Red Sox] know the weather better than we do -- there was a little bit of an indication that, hey, we may have a bigger window than we expected," Hinch said. "And then as the game unfolded and we got the lead, I felt really good about it. And Justin Verlander wanted the ball."

Verlander was lined up to start Game 5, if necessary, on Wednesday in Houston. The Astros would have had lefty Dallas Keuchel on full rest for a do-or-die game, but Verlander's appearance in the bullpen still raised more than a few eyebrows.

It made sense for the Red Sox to use Sale. After all, they had to win Game 4 in order to force a decisive game. They were the desperate team, yet Hinch's move seemed equally desperate.

Verlander blamed the wet mound, not the unfamiliar role, for his mislocated pitch to Benintendi. Before he left a slider over the plate, he bounced a fastball. If he had been making a start, he said he would have asked the umpires to instruct the grounds crew to work on the mound.

"I had a horrible time slipping all over the place, but I was like, 'Screw it. We're in the middle [innings]. Let's just go,'" he said. "Went to a slider, which was probably one of the worst pitches to go to when you're slipping. Hey, you live and you learn."

And if you're Verlander, you shut down the next nine Red Sox batters, even as a sold-out Fenway Park crowd serenades you with chants of "Jus-tin! Jus-tin!"

"It was exhilarating," Verlander said. "It was kind of fly by the seat of your pants. I just kind of figured it out. I was able to get out of that [fifth] inning and reassess and say, 'OK, treat this as a start where you give up a run early, and you've got to keep your team in the game.' That's what I did."

Said Keuchel, "He's that different DNA guy. He's got the makeup for anything, and that's why we got him."

In the end, Hinch was able to breathe easy for all the usual reasons. The Astros' offense was too much for the Red Sox to handle. Boston allowed nine first-inning runs in the four games, with the rotation -- Sale, Drew Pomeranz, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello -- combining to post a 12.71 ERA in 11 1/3 innings as starters.

"The emotion is great on the back end. It's pretty agonizing during the game," Hinch said. "I'm exhausted. Those are my emotions. Managers, we're judged on results, but we work on process. We're prepared. We want to put our guys in a position to be successful. When they're successful, it's the proud father moment. When they're not successful, you take all the blame."

It's enough to render a man a nervous wreck. As the Astros move on to the ALCS, the spotlight on Hinch will be turned up even more. Let's see how he responds.