If you want be the best, you have to beat the best.
That’s where the Boston Red Sox now find themselves.
Despite winning 108 games during the regular season, the Red Sox faced doubts entering their American League Division Series matchup with the rival New York Yankees.
Boston momentarily silenced its doubters by dispatching the Yankees in demanding fashion to set up an AL Championship Series bout with the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.
The Astros, who eliminated Boston in last year’s ALDS, brushed aside the Cleveland Indians in three games to reach the ALCS.
Before the Red Sox and Astros kick off their best-of-seven series, let’s look at how the two teams match up.
The Red Sox’s starting rotation performed admirably in the ALDS against the Yankees, with three of the four starters going at least five innings while allowing two earned runs or fewer.
All the questions surrounding ace Chris Sale, who gets the nod in Game 1, were erased when he came out of the chute firing in Game 1 against New York. Sale tossed 5 1/3 innings, allowing two runs on five hits while striking out eight, and his fastball registered in the mid-90s all night long. The left-hander also tossed a 1-2-3 eighth inning during Boston’s series-clinching Game 4 win at Yankee Stadium.
Manager Alex Cora announced Wednesday that David Price will get the ball in Game 2 against the Astros. The left-hander fell to 0-9 in his postseason career as a starter after the Yankees got to him for three runs in 1 2/3 innings in Boston’s Game 2 ALDS loss. Price has good numbers against the Astros this season, though, going 1-0 with a 3.65 ERA in two starts with 17 total strikeouts, 10 of which came Sept. 7 at Fenway Park.
With Price going in Game 2, that likely means right-hander Nathan Eovaldi will start Game 3 at Minute Maid Park. Eovaldi has been much better at home this season (4-1, 2.06 ERA) than on the road (2-6, 5.14 ERA), but Cora explained he feels more comfortable pitching Price at Fenway Park than in Houston. After Eovaldi shut down the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the ALDS, Cora has all the reason to have confidence in the righty.
If Eovaldi goes in Game 3, then Rick Porcello should start Game 4. The 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner was great in the ALDS, rescuing the Sox’s bullpen in Game 1 and pitching five strong innings in Game 4, allowing just one run on five hits.
The Astros’ starting rotation, and pitching staff in general, has been dominant all season.
Houston allowed just 3.3 runs per game, the fewest in baseball, and led the MLB in starters’ ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
Justin Verlander, the Astros’ Game 1 starter, faced the Red Sox just once this season, allowing three runs in six innings while earning a no-decision. Verlander gave up three runs in 8 2/3 innings over Houston’s ALDS series victory over Boston last season. He recorded a career-high 290 strikeouts this season and has been a postseason horse over his career, going 12-6 with a 3.08 ERA in 23 playoff appearances, 22 of which were starts.
It doesn’t get any easier for Boston in Game 2 against hard-throwing right-hander Gerrit Cole. Cole was dominant in his ALDS Game 2 start against the Indians, allowing one run on three hits while striking out 12 in seven innings. Cole allowed five earned runs while striking out 15 over 13 innings against Boston this season.
Dallas Keuchel is expected to start Game 3 back in Houston. The 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner was hit hard in his only start versus the Sox this season, surrendering five runs on nine hits in six innings. Keuchel was serviceable in his Game 3 ALDS start against the Indians, allowing two runs in five innings.
The Red Sox’s oft-criticized ‘pen got the job done in the ALDS against the Yankees. After a shaky Game 1 that required Porcello’s emergency entrance, Boston’s bullpen did enough to keep New York’s vaunted offense at bay for the remainder of the series. In all, the Sox’s ‘pen allowed seven runs in 17 innings during the ALDS. Craig Kimbrel will have to be better if Boston plans to advance, though. The Red Sox closer had a shaky showing against the Yankees, giving up three runs during his two appearances. Brandon Workman and Eduardo Rodriguez were the only other relievers to allow a run in the series.
Houston’s bullpen, much like its starting rotation, is loaded, and led the majors in bullpen ERA and FIP. Manager A.J. Hinch has a number of weapons at his disposal, as was evident by the number of quality relievers (Brad Peacock, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith and Chris Devenski) who were left off the ALDS roster. If Houston’s starters get the ball to Ryan Pressly, Lance McCullers Jr. and closer Roberto Osuna with the lead, it’s usually game over.
While pitching is in Houston’s favor, the Red Sox’s offense should match up relatively well against the Astrots’ predominately right-handed arms. The Red Sox feasted on right-handed pitching this season, leading the AL with an .817 OPS. Of course, it will be no easy task facing Verlander and Cole twice each if the series goes to seven games, but Boston has the bats to bludgeon the Astros into submission. The Red Sox led the MLB in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. J.D. Martinez could be the key to the series, as Houston’s staff silenced him (.192/.258/.423 vs. the Astros) this season.
Just as the Red Sox crush righties, the Astros hammer lefties. Houston led the AL with an .803 OPS against left-handers while posting the ninth-best OPS against right-handers. Those numbers could present a problem for both Sale and Price, who the Astros could face four times in the seven-game series. Jose Altuve (8-for-24) and George Springer (5-for-14) have had good career success against Sale, while Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel also were successful against the Sox ace in last year’s ALDS.
Houston in 6
The Red Sox proved many of their doubters wrong when they rolled over the Yankees in the ALDS, but Houston is a much different animal. The Astros’ lineup has few holes and should be able to get to the Red Sox’s bullpen in a way the Yankees couldn’t. Couple that with seeing Verlander and Cole four times in a seven-game series, and it’s hard to see Boston sending the defending champs packing.