BOSTON — With temperatures dipping into the 40s, numbing their fingertips as they tried to grip the baseball, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale both struggled to get the ball over the plate.
Verlander recovered quickly.
Sale never did.
After walking in one run and giving up the tying score on a wild pitch, Verlander struck out Andrew Benintendi on a contested called third strike, and the Houston Astros pulled away to beat the Boston Red Sox 7-2 on Saturday night in the AL Championship Series opener.
The teams combined for just eight hits, but Red Sox pitchers walked 10 and hit three batters. Verlander walked four, tying a career postseason high, and more than he had in any outing in the regular season this year. Three of them and one of his two wild pitches came in a fifth inning that almost chased him from the game.
"That inning I had kind of lost my feel a bit. Couldn't point a finger to why," Verlander said. "The tying run scoring was a little disappointing. ... But once that happens, then you've got to reset and not relinquish the lead."
Verlander pitched six innings of two-hit ball, and Carlos Correa fisted a single into left field to break a sixth-inning tie. Josh Reddick hit a solo homer to lead off the ninth, and Yuli Gurriel curled a three-run shot into the front row beyond the Pesky Pole to give the defending World Series champions their fifth straight postseason victory.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday night, with Boston left-hander David Price trying to end his postseason skid against Astros righty Gerrit Cole. Cora has expressed confidence in Price, a Cy Young Award winner who is 0-9 in 10 postseason starts, and the 108-win Red Sox will need him to be better than Sale was in the opener.
"We'll see tomorrow," Boston catcher Sandy Leon said.
In a rematch of last year's Division Series opener, when the Astros hit back-to-back homers in the first inning and pounded Sale for seven runs in all, Verlander improved to 13-2 in the AL playoffs. Houston only got one hit off of Sale, but he loaded the bases with two outs in the second on two walks and a hit batter before reigning World Series MVP George Springer singled in two runs past the glove of Eduardo Nunez, who slipped as he stretched for the ball.
"Anytime you get two quick outs then you load up the bases and give them two runs, that's not what you're looking for this time of year," Sale said. "I just went out there and lost it for a little bit. I felt like I was battling myself for a little bit. I was trying to limit the damage and get out there as quick as we can."
The Red Sox went down in order in the second, third and fourth innings before awakening the shivering, sold-out Fenway crowd in the fifth with Steve Pearce's single just their second hit in the game and two walks. Verlander walked a third batter in a row, forcing in a run.
Mookie Betts hit a hard grounder, and third baseman Alex Bregman threw home for the force and the second out. With Jackie Bradley Jr. dancing on third base, Verlander put a 1-2 curveball in the dirt and past catcher Martin Maldonado, allowing the runners to advance and tying the game 2-2.
Andrew Benintendi worked the count full before looking at a 3-2 pitch that appeared to catch the edge of the zone for the third out.
"You can look at it two ways," Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts said. "They pitched their way out of it, but we didn't hit our way into it."
Benintendi was less philosophical. He slammed down his helmet and bat down and jawed with plate umpire James Hoye before Red Sox coaches ran in to get between them.
Cora continued the argument and was ejected; he handed over his lineup card to bench coach Ron Roenicke and headed down the tunnel.
"I guess Verlander executed his pitch, and he called it a strike," Cora said. "Andrew didn't agree. I didn't agree. It's a big pitch right there. It's ball four, bases loaded. ... Most likely Verlander comes out of the game.
"But you can't argue balls and strikes," he said. "And I did."
Houston took advantage of another hit batter in the sixth this one by reliever Joe Kelly and Nunez's fielding error on Gurriel's grounder to take a 3-2 lead. Reddick and Gurriel homered off Brandon Workman.
Verlander was charged with two runs, two hits and four walks, striking out six. He has allowed only nine hits in his past four postseason starts, matching Don Larsen for the fewest (1955-57 as the only pitchers to allow nine hits over a span of four-postseason starts, according to STATS.
"The tying run scoring was a little disappointing," Verlander said. "But once that happens, then you've got to reset and not relinquish the lead."
Sale, who took the mound without long sleeves on the chilly night, left after the fourth inning his only 1-2-3 inning of the game having thrown 86 pitches. He gave up two runs on one hit, four walks and a hit batter.
"I still like our chances," he said. "We've got D.P. on the mound and we got a bunch of guys in here that are fired up over tonight. We're not gonna hang our heads in the locker room. We're not gonna give up. This is the time when we kick in gear and start fighting."
Boston catcher Christian Vazquez hit second-base umpire Joe West on his chest with a throw when Jake Marisnick stole second in the eighth.
Price, 16-7 in this year's regular season, has two postseason wins in relief in his career. Cora insisted that he had faith in Price, and he told the 2012 AL Cy Young winner as much after the Red Sox eliminated the Yankees in the previous round.
"Alex told me before we even got off the field that night" that he would get another start, Price said before the game. "So for him to tell me before we even took our jerseys off to put on our postseason shirts that we get when we win, that was special."
Cole was 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA in the regular season.