In their first 55 seasons, the Astros made the NLCS four times in 1980, 1986, 2004 and 2005. Now, starting Friday, they will be in their fifth ALCS in five consecutive seasons.
Leading the team across the way, the Boston Red Sox will be manager Alex Cora. Alex Cora, the supposed architect of “IT”. He was with the Astros as they merged modern technology (video feeds) and old school signalling (trash can banging) into a scandal that tainted the only championship the team has ever won. The Astros were by far the best offensive team in the majors in the 2017 season, and the Red Sox under new manager, Alex Cora, were the best offense in the majors in 2018 as they roared off to a championship. Cora was punished for cheating with the Astros, but not for anything he did with Boston, and after sitting out a season, he returned as the Sox manager in 2020.
Flash forward to 2021, and the Astros and the Sox are the last two teams standing in the AL. Boston knocked their two division mates to the side, knocking out the Yanks in the Wild Card play-in game and rolling the team with the best regular-season record in the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays. The Astros ramped up their offense and beat the Chicago White Sox in a not that competitive series.
So, one team that chose to remove their manager (A.J. Hinch) and their general manager (Jeff Luhnow) over “IT” plays a team where cheating in 2018 was placed at the feet of a single video assistant. It should be an exciting matchup, and it should be interesting whether the Boston crowd is more vociferous (and frankly hypocritical) than the Chicago crowds.
Playoff History. In this golden age of Astros baseball, the team has played the Red Sox twice in the playoffs. In their 2017 Championship season, the Astros met Boston in the first round ALDS. They came out of the box strong, beating the Red Sox twice at Minute Maid by identical 8-2 games. The third game was tight until the Sox put the Astros away with a six-run rally in the 7th, making Joe Kelly the winner. Yes, Joe (drill every Astro you see) Kelly. The 4th game was a classic where the team’s two aces Justin Verlander (win) and Chris Sale (loss), pitched in relief and took the decisions. The Astros bounced forward from this 3-1 win in the ALDS to knock off the Yankees and Dodgers on their way to a World Series championship.
The very next season, they met farther down the line in the ALCS. The Astros beat the same Joe Kelly in the first game, and then the Red Sox roared away, having every fluke play, umpire’s call, and late hit fall their way in sending the Astros home 4-1.
Recent History. In the 2021 regular season, the Astros were 5-2 against their ALDS opponent, the White Sox outscoring them 35-23. They were also 5-2 against the not-so-pale Red Sox with an even more considerable run margin of 42-25. The Astros played two series against Boston in late May/early June, beating them 3 out of 4 at Minute Maid and 2 out of 3 at Fenway.
General View. There will be many stories and pundits talking about how the Red Sox are not the same team they were when they played the Astros early in the year. But the truth is after those two series, the Sox were still a solid 38-25 and one game back of the Rays in the AL East. At the end of the season (92-70), their record was eight games back of the AL-best Rays and one game different from the Astros first-round opponent, Chicago (93-69). This team is good, and they are red hot after knocking off the Yanks and the Rays.
Health. The biggest health issue in this series is the likely loss of Astros ace (He’s the ace – prove me wrong) Lance McCullers Jr. If that is confirmed, the Astros would likely move Zack Greinke back in the rotation with Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy with Jake Odorizzi and Cristian Javier being the safety nets for long relief out of the bullpen. There have been no updates on Jake Meyers, who busted up his left (throwing) shoulder on a White Sox home run. His loss would move Chas McCormick into the starting lineup, and he is not concerned about the McCullers’ loss.
The Red Sox biggest injury problem would be that reliever Garrett Richards is out for the ALCS after getting injured in the ALDS.
Managers. Dusty Baker had an excellent ALCS outside the injuries and certainly looked a bit more mature than his 77-year-old opponent, Tony LaRussa. If McCullers is a no-go, this will be just another challenge for Baker, who worked through a ton of injuries in 2020 and some significant ones in 2021. To date, Sox manager Alex Cora has guided his team through a challenging playoff gauntlet and has likely told his minions that they are not to speak the “c” work in talking about their opponent in this round.
Hitting. The Astros and Red Sox had very similar offenses in the regular season, with the Astros just a bit ahead in all the major categories (5.33 to 5.12 runs/game, .267 to .261 BA, .339 to .328 OBP, and .783 to .777 OPS). The most significant disparity between the teams is that the Sox struck out one more time per game than the Astros for the season. The Astros are coming off a series where everyone not named Yuli Gurriel (.319 BA, 15 HRs, 81 RBIs) or Martin Maldonado (.172 BA, 12 HRs, 36 RBIs) knocked the snot out of the ball as they averaged 7.75 runs per game with a low game of six runs. The Sox have averaged 6.4 runs in 5 playoff games to date, but that included getting shut out with the Rays’ opener. The Sox have a powerful and balanced lineup featuring stars like Rafael Devers (.279 BA, 38 HRs, 113 RBIs), Xander Bogaerts (.295 BA, 23 HRs, 79 RBIs), Hunter Renfroe (.259 BA, 31 HRs, 96 RBIs) and J.D. Martinez (.286 BA, 28 HRs, 99 RBIs). Enrique (Kike) Hernandez (.250 BA, 20 HRs, 60 RBIs), who, like Martinez, is a former Astro, was the surprise star of the ALDS and knocked in the winning run. The Astros rode the big bats of Jose Altuve (.278 BA, 31 HR, 83 RBIs), Kyle Tucker (.294 BA, 31 HRs, 92 RBIs), Michael Brantley (.311 BA, 8 HRs, 47 RBIs), Carlos Correa (.279 BA, 26 RBIs, 92 RBIs), Alex Bregman (.270 BA, 12 HR, 55 RBIs), and Yordan Alvarez (.277 BA, 33 HRs, 104 RBIs) in the ALDS and will need those plus a warmed up Gurriel to beat Boston.
Starting Pitching. The Astros had one of the top starting staffs in the AL in 2021. They had the most wins (63) and the second-best ERA (3.63) and WHIP (1.19) in the AL. The Red Sox’s starting staff was middle of the road coming in 5th in wins (50), 8th in ERA (4.49) and tied for 12th in WHIP (1.37). However, not having their best starter in McCullers would tamp those numbers downward for the Astros. In contrast, the Red Sox numbers do not reflect that first game starter Chris Sale (5-1, 3.16 ERA) did not pitch until mid-August, at which point he has been effective, though not going deep into games.
If McCullers (13-5, 3.16 ERA) is out, the Astros will likely be riding a lot of youth in this series between last year’s best starter, Framber Valdez (11-6, 3.14 ERA), plus Luis Garcia (11-8, 3.30 ERA) and Jose Urquidy (8-3, 3.62 ERA). Even though he struggled with performance, illness and injury down the stretch, it is a positive that Zack Greinke (11-6, 4.16 ERA) is available for high leverage starts and Jake Odorizzi (6-7, 4.21 ERA) may get a chance to earn his contract in long relief or a spot start. Cristian Javier is an option too, but not a stretched out one.
Behind Sale, second game starter Nathan Eovaldi (11-9, 3.75 ERA) has had a solid season and was tough on the Astros back in the 2018 ALCS. Edouardo Rodriguez (13-8, 4.74 ERA) and Nick Pevetta (9-8, 4.53 ERA) are likely penciled in for next up in the rotation; however, Alex Cora has stated that it is an all hands on deck in the first two games of this series. Former Ranger Martin Perez (7-8, 4.74 ERA) started 22 games this season, but none since early August. Tanner Houck (1-5, 3.52 ERA) has bounced between starting and the bullpen down the stretch.
Even without McCullers, the Astros starters match up positively with the Red Sox if they can survive the first couple of games.
Relief Pitching. The Red Sox and Astros bullpens have base numbers (3.99 ERA vs. 4.06 ERA for the Astros and 1.39 WHIP vs. 1.30 WHIP for Houston) that are very comparable. But Boston’s results have been much better as they have a 42-23 record with 49 saves vs. 32-31 record with 34 saves for the Astros. The Sox bullpen has one of the highest walk rates in the AL, and that is something the Astros tend to feast off of late in games. While a lot of focus will go towards the starting pitching matchup, the bullpen matchup may likely tell the tale in what looks like a big offensive series.
Ryan Pressly (5-3, 2.25 ERA, 26 saves), Kendall Graveman (1-1, 3.13 ERA), and Ryne Stanek (3-5, 3.42 ERA, 2 saves) are penciled in for the late-inning situations. Phil Maton (4-0, 4.97 ERA), who had been shaky in the regular season, has been a vital bridge in the postseason. Brooks Raley and Yimi Garcia have been shaky in the postseason. There will be a couple long-relief options out of the bullpen, likely Cristian Javier and Jake Odorizzi, who will have to be available to stretch out any shortened starts by the rotation.
Matt Barnes (6-5, 3.79 ERA, 24 saves) and Adam Ottavino (7-3, 4.21 ERA, 11 saves) get the most late-inning call-ups for Boston. But they have some solid options behind them with Garrett Whitlock (8-4, 1.96 ERA, 2 saves), Hirosaku Sawamura (5-1, 3.06 ERA), Josh Taylor (1-0, 3.40 ERA, 1 save) and Darwinzon Hernandez (1-1, 3.38 ERA). And remember that Manager Cora has said that all hands are on deck and was considering bringing in ace Chris Sale if a save situation showed itself in their Game 4 victory over the Rays.
Prediction. Astros in 6. Yes, the Red Sox are red hot, but in the playoffs, red hot can go cold real quick, and the Astros offense looks like it is primed to put the pedal to the metal in this series. Remember that the Astros were 17-11 in games started by Lance McCullers and 78-56 in all other games. They would rather face the Sox with him in the rotation, but they can win without him.