The defending champion Astros are chasing history as they attempt to become the first team since the Yankees of the late ‘90’s to win back-to-back World Championships, while the Red Sox are looking to add a fourth title since 2004.
It’s poetic justice that the two best teams in the American League will play for the pennant. These are not just the two best teams in the AL but they could be the two best in the entire sport. I’m sure the Brewers or Dodgers will have something to say about that in the World Series, but for now, Houston and Boston top the list.
The Astros won the season series, 4-3, but the Red Sox have the home advantage as a result of having more wins. (108-103) The teams split a four game series in Houston in late May, while the Astros copped two of three at Fenway in early September. Remember, the Astros eliminated the Red Sox last season in four games in the ALDS, so that will provide a little extra motivation for Boston.
The strengths and the flaws of the two clubs are eerily similar.
The Red Sox starting pitching is better than their bullpen. Same with Houston, although they have the edge over the Bosox because their rotation is deeper. You can make the argument that Houston’s lineup is a little longer than the Red Sox but they will both be very tough outs in clutch spots and both do not rely heavily on the long ball.
The top portions of the Astros and Red Sox respective lineups are the best in the sport. Boston has Mookie Betts (arguably the best lead off hitter in the game) and Andrew Benintendi setting the table for J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts. Houston features George Springer (arguably the second best lead off hitter in the game) and Alex Bregman (who has been super hot during the post season) followed by the best second baseman in the game, Jose Altuve, and a less than 100%, Carlos Correa.
A back injury forced the 24-year old shortstop to miss a significant amount of time beginning in late June and he hasn’t been the same player since he returned in early August. Correa says he’s “healthy” but he was just 1 for 10 in the three game, ALDS sweep of Cleveland. The flip side is that the one hit was a home run in the final game, so the Red Sox better hope a “sleeping giant” is not about to awaken.
Betts only played the final three regular season games against Houston because he was injured in late May but he made the most of it. One of the leading candidates for the AL MVP Award batted .636 (7 for 11) with 5 runs scored in those three games, but he is 1 for 17 (.059) vs. game one starter Justin Verlander.
Benintendi’s left hand bat plays well in the two hole. During the regular season, the Astros’ pitchers were able to limit the damage he can cause, but in the four game series in Houston, the Red Sox left fielder had to lead off because Betts was injured. Martinez has taken full advantage of what the top two hitters provide.
Houston has a similar formula at the top of their lineup. Springer has not only developed into one of the best players in the League, he’s quickly developed a deserved reputation for being a post season performer. Springer is a dual threat of power and speed. Bregman is earning that post season label after hitting .556 with two home runs and four RBI’s against the Indians and Altuve is merely the reigning AL MVP.
The respective pitching aces take the ball tonight in game one at Fenway Park as Verlander opposes Boston lefty Chris Sale.
The 35-year old Verlander logged 218 IP this season and has thrown a lot of innings in his 14-year career. Could age be catching up a bit at this point? In the game one vs. Cleveland, Verlander was rolling but tired in the sixth. Second and third time through the order may not be as easy as in the past for the future Hall of Famer.
Sale dealt with a shoulder problem during the second half of the regular season so he was “babied” down the stretch. After his final regular season outing where he topped out at 90 MPH, Sale appeared to show that he was back as his fastball was again averaging 95 MPH, but he threw way more sliders and off speed stuff than he did the hard stuff.
In the eighth inning of game four of the ALDS, Red Sox Mgr. Alex Cora used Sale, who retired the side on 13 pitches so everyone seems to be fine. In both appearances however, it appeared that Sale did not seem to have the same life on his fastball, despite the radar gun readings. Early innings will be telling.
Game one of the ALCS does not have the same urgency attached to it as game one of a Divisional Series, it’s still a big game, but I think it’s more important for the Red Sox than the Astros. Both teams have proven they can win on the road but with the second game pitching match up of Gerrit Cole (who was terrific in the regular season and comes off a dominant performance in the ALDS) against David Price, I would think the Red Sox need this one a little more. Game three starters have not been announced but it’s a good bet that Dallas Keuchel will start for Houston, while either Nathan Eovaldi or Rick Porcello will get the nod for Boston.
Both these teams can hit the opponent’s bullpen so I expect to see a couple of high scoring games in this series. Getting a lead will be key but these clubs can make a lead shrink in a hurry.
I think the Astros will be better at exploiting Boston’s flaws, than vice-versa. Houston has not been whole for most of the season but they were, down the stretch, when they took hold of the AL West with a 21-6 mark in September.
Astros in 6.