The American League Championship Series will be a showdown between the teams with the two best records in baseball. The Red Sox finished the regular season with a franchise-record 108 wins, while the Houston Astros weren’t far behind with 103 wins. That gives you the second-highest combined win total for a playoff series (211), behind only the 1998 Yankees-Padres World Series (212). So, when it comes to postseason clashes between powerhouse teams, it really doesn’t get much bigger than this.
Some other numbers to consider: Boston has the best offense in baseball, averaging 5.4 runs per game during the regular season. On the flip side, Houston topped the league in run prevention, giving up an average of just 3.3 runs per game.
What else should you know about the Red Sox-Astros match-up before white-knuckling it through another postseason series? Here’s a preview done three up (positives), three down (reasons to worry) style:
1. Alex Cora Is The Man
Any concern about how the first-year Red Sox manager would handle playoff pressure disappeared in the ALDS. He pushed all the right buttons, from bringing in starters for relief duty (Rick Porcello in Game 1, Chris Sale in Game 4) to making lineup changes that provided the perfect spark (see Brock Holt hitting for the first postseason cycle in MLB history in Game 3). Relying on a combination of baseball instincts and analytics, Cora’s calculated risks paid off.
Expect to see more of the same approach against the Astros. For what it’s worth, the Astros probably have a pretty good idea what they’ll get from Cora. On their way to a World Series championship last season, he was their bench coach.
2. Chris Sale Is The Man, too
When Sale took the mound in Game 1, there were some lingering questions about his health. Was he fully recovered from the shoulder inflammation that put him on the disabled list? Were his mechanical issues solved? Would his velocity return to normal? Against the Yankees, Sale left no doubt he’s back to his dominant self. In Game 1, he took a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph. In relief in Game 4, he pitched a scoreless eighth inning, dispatching three New York hitters on 13 pitches (eight for strikes).
Sale faces Astros ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the ALCS. That game seems destined for an epic pitchers’ duel.
3. The Fenway Factor
With the best record in baseball comes home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And with a series against the Astros likely to be a long one, having Game 6 and Game 7 scheduled for Fenway is big. The Red Sox posted the best home record in the Major Leagues this season, 57-24. But you might want to keep this in mind, too: The Astros had the best road record, 57-24.
1. David, David, David
You can’t talk about Sox concerns without putting pitcher David Price at or near the top of the list. Price is still searching for his first postseason win as a starter. He’s 0-9 in 10 starts with a 5.28 overall postseason ERA. And that includes his Game 2 start against the Yankees in the ALDS. To put it politely, Price struggled. Not so politely, the outing was a disaster with Price unable to get out of the second inning. How bad was it? Consider this: During player introductions for Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, New York fans cheered and chanted "M-V-P" when Price was announced.
Still, Cora is going with Price as his Game 2 starter in the ALCS. Will that decision go down as another one of Cora’s calculated risks that pays off? We’ll find out Sunday night.
2. The Bullpen, The Bullpen, The Bullpen
What more can be said about the Red Sox bullpen woes? Nothing really. There’s a reason Cora’s using Porcello and Sale as relievers. If you’re a Red Sox fan, you’re hoping for big early leads and starting pitchers that go deep into every ALCS game.
And then there’s the Craig Kimbrel situation. Kimbrel struggled in the ninth inning of Game 4 against the Yankees. (Again, struggled is putting it politely: He couldn’t find the strike zone, allowing two runs before getting the save.) Those control issues will probably haunt Red Sox fans when Kimbrel takes the mound in the ALCS. But the only thing that matters is whether or not they haunt Kimbrel.
3. Been There, Done That
Postseason experience matters. The Astros know what it takes to grind out playoff series win after playoff series win en route to a World Series title. They swept the Cleveland Indians in efficient fashion. So, whether Red Sox Nation wants to admit it or not, the Astros are the team to beat in the postseason. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a home run-blasting leadoff hitter named George Springer.