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Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale reacts after giving up a two run double to Houston Astros' Yordan Alvarez during the sixth inning in Game 5 of baseball's American League Championship Series Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Chris Sale was back.

Except for a mistake to Astros slugger Yordan Álvarez leading off the second inning Wednesday night, the Red Sox left-hander was dominating Game 5 of the American League Championship Series like he hadn't in any game since having Tommy John surgery 19 months ago.

For five innings, he overpowered Houston's formidable lineup. He used a fastball that reached the upper 90s and unsettled the Astros with a snappy slider he hadn't shown all season. With everything working, Sale screamed into his glove after big strikeouts, showing body language of a fully confident pitcher.

The Red Sox had their ace back on his game and the lively Fenway Park crowd on their side. If they could just restart their offense against left-hander Framber Valdez and get into Houston's bullpen, the series could be back in their control.

They were just having illusions of grandeur.

In the top of the sixth, Sale turned back into his struggling post-Tommy John self. Weaker fastballs. Spotty command. Worse luck. Aggressive base running by Houston. Another big hit for Álvarez. Add slow reaction time by manager Alex Cora, and the Astros were able to jump on the Red Sox for five runs to take command. It looked a lot like the ninth inning of Game 4.

After facing 22 batters and pitching without a lead, Sale was out of of the game.

“I left my nuts out on that mound tonight, that’s for damn sure," Sale said. "I was good for five, then I sucked for one."

Valdez, the first Houston starter to complete the third inning in the series, never allowed Boston batters to dig in as the Astros came away with a 9-1 victory in Game 5. After a travel day, they can clinch the AL pennant at home Friday night.

Sizzling on offense earlier in the series, the Red Sox have scored a combined three runs over the past two games. All they mustered against Valdez were three hits in eight innings — notably Rafael Devers’ seventh-inning solo home run, which came after Houston's offense had made its big move.

"If a guy's dealing, you let him keep dealing," Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

The Red Sox fell to 17-7 in the postseason in Cora's career, losing consecutive games for the first time ever.

“I don’t see this as a slump," Cora said. "It’s two games. … We’ll keep working, keep talking, and be ready as a group. We’ll be ready for the next one.

"If we don’t win the next game, the season is over. … But we've been facing this all season. … We'll be ready for the next one."

The outcome might have been different if not for Álvarez, who got the Astros on the scoreboard by jumping on the first pitch of the second inning — a fastball way off the outside corner that Sale wanted way inside. It also clocked at just 93.6 mph, several clicks off Sale's other early fastballs, before ending up in the seats above the Green Monster.

The Astros brewed more trouble in the fourth, when Alex Bregman walked with one out and Álvarez hit another fastball — this one down the middle — off the Green Monster for a long single. Sale didn't let anyone score, gassing Carlos Correa with a 96-mph fastball and getting Kyle Tucker to flail at 98 mph.

Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez said it was the best Sale had looked since 2019.

"The fastball was electric," he said.

The Red Sox wasted their first chance to even the score against Valdez in the fifth, with Hunter Renfroe bouncing into a 6-4-3 double play after Devers and J.D. Martinez had reached to lead off. Alex Verdugo couldn't bring in the runner from third with two outs, either.

Then came the sixth. With Sale's velocity down 3-4 mph and his command failing, Altuve walked to lead off and, thanks to a defensive shift, took third base on a hit-and-run with Michael Brantley hitting a grounder that bore fruit when Kyle Schwarber couldn't handle Devers' throw in the dirt.

Cora probably should have been looking to change pitchers, but righty Ryan Brasier wasn't ready yet. Bregman hit a tapper back to the mound that moved Brantley to second, kept Altuve at third and left an opening for Álvarez.

A .293/.364/.580 hitter against lefties and a nearly identical .288/.375/.575 hitter against righties, the moment called for any fresh arm, but Cora let Sale stay in and didn’t use the intentional walk. Álvarez jumped on the first pitch — an 89.1 mph fastball down the middle — lining it into the left-field corner for a two-run double. It was his first career game with three hits to the opposite field.

Houston's 3-0 lead became 6-0 by the end of the sixth. The Astros are one win away from reaching the World Series for the third time in five years.

"I’ll pitch tomorrow if I have to," said Sale, even though there's no game for 48 hours. "I got nothing going on for six months. … Everyone is available.”

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