ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Things could have gotten ugly in a hurry.
Chris Sale, the Red Sox $30 million a year man, didn't have it. Without a trustworthy changeup Sale only had two pitches in his arsenal and the Tampa Bay Rays teed off.
The offense, while more than capable of erasing a three-run deficit, wasn't likely to win a track meet if the Rays kept scoring at will.
The Red Sox needed a stopper. They found one in Tanner Houck.
Houck came on in relief of Sale and completely sucked the air right out of Tropicana Field. He was electric, shutting down the formidable Rays lineup over five outstanding innings, and in doing so he gave his teammates the opening they needed to take the game back.
"What this guy did was unbelievable," said Kiké Hernández. "He kept us in the game and gave us a chance to come back.
"If it wasn't for what he was able to do behind Chris and picking him up and us up, I mean, we wouldn't have been able to win this game."
Houck has been one of the biggest success stories of the season for Boston, but over the past week he has found the next gear and become a devastating multi-inning weapon. On Saturday he pitched five innings of perfect baseball in a must-win game against the Nationals, followed that with a perfect seventh inning in his playoff debut on Tuesday against the New York Yankees, and then added three more perfect innings to start his outing on Friday before finally allowing a single to Wander Franco and a solo home run to Ji-Man Choi.
Add it all up, Houck recorded 29 consecutive outs over those three appearances — more than the 27 needed to complete a perfect game — and has sent down 33 of 35 batters overall in three of the biggest games of the season.
"He has grown. He is getting better and better and better," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. "Everybody talks about third time through the order, everybody talks about facing lefties and that's a good lineup over there, and they had some good left-handed hitters, and he did an amazing job."
"He had all of his stuff working," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "Just kept us off balance, but he was tough. We had seen him, I think, one other time early and was good that time as well, but he came in and did a tremendous job for them."
If not for Houck, there's no telling where the Red Sox would be right now. Possibly staring down an 2-0 series deficit, maybe not even in the ALDS at all.
But even if he acknowledge feeling butterflies coming into his first playoff appearances, Houck has risen to the moment, and when his team needed him most he delivered.
"You can either roll over and die, or you can show your teeth a little bit and fight," Houck said. "I think that's what this team does best, and just all props to them to continue to go out there and do what they've done."
Now Houck and the Red Sox are set to bring the fight back to Boston.