Prime-time clash just what the Astros want

But de­fend­ing champs will have hands full with pow­er­ful Red Sox, writes Rob Lon­g­ley.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - SPORTS - Rlon­g­ley@post­media.com

BOS­TON In ad­vanc­ing to the ALCS for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year, Hous­ton Astros third base­man Alex Breg­man had a rather odd re­ac­tion ear­lier this week.

He com­plained about sun­burn and then threw some shade.

The World Se­ries cham­pi­ons had just pol­ished off the Cleve­land In­di­ans in three games — on a bril­liant sunny day in Cleve­land, no less — and Breg­man felt the need to send a mes­sage.

All three Astros wins in the ALDS were day­time starts, a slight in Breg­man’s mind given his team’s sta­tus and star power. Does Tiger Woods tee off at 8 a.m., he asked? Is Floyd May­weather on the un­der­card when he fights?

Well, as the Astros move to the next stop in de­fence of their thrilling seven-game win over the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in last year’s Fall Clas­sic, they are back in prime time for their ALCS show­down against the Bos­ton Red Sox.

The Astros are sig­nif­i­cant bet­ting favourites, even though the Red Sox are com­ing off a 108-win reg­u­lar sea­son that earned them home-field ad­van­tage in the se­ries begin­ning Satur­day night at Fen­way Park.

Breg­man’s gripes and the Astros’ sta­tus both have merit. As North Amer­ica fell in love with the his­tory and hype of the Yan­kees and Red Sox in the other ALDS, the Astros felt like they were the un­der­card as they blew by Cleve­land in straight games.

That’s about to change in Game 1 when the tal­ented Justin Ver­lan­der takes the hill for the Astros against Red Sox ace Chris Sale in what prom­ises to be a clas­sic open­ing game.

“This is a tal­ented group and it’s also a tested group,” Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch said. “Our guys have a good idea how to pre­pare and how to im­ple­ment. Suc­cess breeds more suc­cess.

“Our guys know we can win and we can beat you in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways.”

From Cy Young can­di­dates such as Ver­lan­der and Game 2 starter Ger­rit Cole, to MVP pos­si­bil­ity Breg­man (and the

h h dl year, Jose Al­tuve), to a bullpen an­chored by former Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, the Astros are a jug­ger­naut.

The Red Sox get it, but also be­lieve they showed some prow­ess of their own by win­ning two in a row at Yan­kee Sta­dium to wrap up their ALDS in four games. That com­ing off their dom­i­nat­ing reg­u­lar sea­son.

“We know who we’re up against,” Sale said with a shrug. “They’ve got some good arms. They have a good lineup. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. They’ve got guys who can put the ball in the seats at any time.

“On the flip side, I like the guys in my cor­ner, too.”

In­deed, there is plenty to like about both teams. The com­bined 211 reg­u­lar-sea­son wins by the Astros and Red Sox is the sec­ond most for any matchup in MLB play­off his­tory.

The Red Sox cer­tainly feel they’re bet­ter equipped than the team that lost the ALDS to the Astros in four games last sea­son. A big rea­son for that is the ac­qui­si­tion of des­ig­nated hit­ter J.D. Martinez, who didn’t land in New Eng­land by ac­ci­dent.

Rec­og­niz­ing the need to fill the void left by the re­tire­ment of David Or­tiz, Red Sox pres­i­dent Dave Dom­browski went hard af­ter free agent Martinez, who was all ears when the of­fer went to five years and US$120 mil­lion.

“Ob­vi­ously they had a great team last year. It was one of the draw­ing points to come here and just help out as much as I could,” said Martinez, whose 43 homers were sec­ond-most in the Amer­i­can League. “The fact that we’re where we’re at re­ally doesn’t sur­prise any of us. We ex­pected to be here.”

Bos­ton had the most home wins in the ma­jors with 57 while Hous­ton led all of base­ball in road wins, also with 57.

The Astros may have claimed the ti­tle last year, but first-year Red Sox man­ager Alex Cora, who was Hinch’s bench coach for that run, be­lieves he’s got a team good enough to com­pete and cer­tainly one that’s highly mo­ti­vated.

“I know our guys are hun­gry for a ring and they have a shot right now.”

Our guys have a good idea how to pre­pare and how to im­ple­ment. Suc­cess breeds more suc­cess. A.J. HINCH

CHARLES KRUPA/AP

Justin Ver­lan­der will get the ball for the de­fend­ing World Se­ries cham­pion Hous­ton Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Bos­ton Red Sox at Fen­way Park Satur­day. Chris Sale starts for the Red Sox.

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