HOUSTON - Jose Altuve was denied a potential two-run homer in the first inning for the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series after fans reaching for the ball interfered with Mookie Betts' attempt to make a leaping catch.
Now Houston's chances to repeat as World Series champion are nearly out of reach.
The Astros recovered from that early gut punch to take the lead -- including homers by George Springer and Tony Kemp well over that same right field wall. But Jackie Bradley Jr. homered for the second night in a row for the Boston Red Sox in an 8-6 victory Wednesday, putting them up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
Houston has lost three in a row since winning the series opener 7-2 at Fenway Park on Saturday night.
Justin Verlander, 6-1 in eight postseason games for Houston, including a win in Game 1 of this ALCS, starts Thursday night with the season on the line.
After Boston scored twice in the first inning for the second night in a row, it appeared the Astros might have tied the game on Altuve's drive.
But crew chief Joe West, working the right-field line at Minute Maid Park, signaled fan interference after Betts was unable to make a jumping grab and the ball ricocheted back onto the field. Fans made contact with Betts' glove, though it wasn't clear if they had reached over the fence in the process.
The call stood after a replay review that lasted 3 minutes, 13 seconds. Altuve was ruled out and teammate George Springer was sent back to first base.
Altuve had both hands on his helmet in disbelief while standing on second base, where he stopped when the play ended. Astros manager AJ Hinch went out to discuss the situation with West, who had a brief consultation with the rest of the six-man umpire crew before the play was reviewed.
"He just said that there was fan interference on the field and my argument was more about the fact that the ball was leaving the yard, the trajectory was there," Hinch said during an in-game interview on TBS. "Jose paid the ultimate price for something out of his control. I'm not sure if Mookie makes that catch, a great athlete, but how it's an assumed out is unbelievable."
A fan wearing an orange Astros jersey, who identified himself as Troy Caldwell, insisted he wasn't reaching out over the yellow line atop the 7-foot-high fence when the ball hit his hand.
"That ball was gone no matter what," said Caldwell, a lifelong Astros fan from Houston who now lives in Atlanta.
The Astros tied the game at 3 in the third, when Springer went deep on the first pitch of the inning before Altuve doubled high off the left-field wall and Josh Reddick plated him with a single. Kemp snapped that tie when he homered the next inning.
Bradley, whose grand slam Tuesday came in a five-run eighth off closer Roberto Osuna, hit a two-run shot in the sixth off hard-throwing Josh James for a 6-5 Red Sox lead. They were up 8-5 before Altuve's RBI groundout in the eighth.
Houston had the bases loaded in the ninth against closer Craig Kimbrel before Alex Bregman's sinking liner to left was snagged by a diving Andrew Benintendi.
Altuve was the designated hitter for the second game in a row because of a bruised right knee that is clearly bothering the six-time All-Star second baseman when he runs.
And he didn't even get to trot around the bases in the first. When his hit ricocheted high off the wall in left field in the third, Altuve had to hustle to second base after it initially looked like the ball might go out of the park.
While Betts didn't say anything to the fans after the disputed play in the first, Caldwell said he immediately started getting texts that he had cost Altuve and the Astros a home run.
"As long as the Astros come back and win this we'll be all right," Caldwell said.
They didn't, and now are facing elimination.
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