Astros against Red Sox could be ‘special.’
Some of baseball’s dynamic players to be on display in battle for pennant
It’s one step short of the World Series, but the American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox may offer the best matchup Major League Baseball has to offer in 2018.
The best-of-seven series that begins Saturday night at Boston’s Fenway Park, with the winner going on to play the Milwaukee Brewers or Los Angeles Dodgers, checks most of the boxes that any devoted seamhead or casual fan would desire.
“It’s lined up to be something really special … a couple of heavyweights,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
It’s the first league championship series to feature two 100-win teams — both of whom set franchise records for victories this season — since 1977 and only the third to do so since the LCS was inaugurated in 1969.
It’s a potential showcase for a half-dozen players who will be in the top five in voting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award and Cy Young Award, led by the likes of Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander of the Astros and Mookie Betts and Chris Sale of the Red Sox.
The managers — Hinch for the Astros, Alex Cora for the Red Sox — stood side by side last year in the Astros’ dugout as manager and bench coach, respectively.
The rosters feature a mixture of old friends, familiar foes and altered allegiances. Astros outfielder George Springer grew up a Red Sox fan in Connecticut. Boston pitcher Nathan Eovaldi hails from Alvin, 30 minutes down Texas 288 from Minute Maid Park. Astros third baseman Bregman and Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart were teammates on youth baseball teams in their hometown of Albuquerque, and Betts was a summer baseball teammate of Astros outfielder Tony Kemp in their native Tennessee.
The teams are mirror images in many ways — forged in the image of baseball’s data-driven framework, patient at the plate, dynamic in the field, dominant on the pitcher’s mound.
And before the clock strikes midnight on Oct. 21, one will have lost four times, and the other will be on its way to the World Series.
“Everybody in their clubhouse loves to compete, and so do we,” Bregman said. “It’s going to make some great games, great baseball all the way, and everyone in here is looking forward to it.
“The pitching will be unbelievable. The lineups are stacked. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
What passes as fun for the players, of course, will be sublime agony for white-knuckled fans in Houston and Boston.
Sale vs. Verlander
Saturday’s pitching matchup features two Cy Young candidates in Red Sox lefthander Sale, who came out of the bullpen to pitch a crucial inning in Boston’s Division Series win over the Yankees, against Verlander, whose late-season acquisition helped spur Houston toward the 2017 World Series win over the Dodgers.
The Red Sox lineup features Betts, the odds-on favorite for AL MVP, and a familiar face in designated hitter J.D. Martinez, a bit player on the Astros’ 100loss teams in 2011-13 who has blossomed into baseball’s best slugger, with 43 home runs and 130 runs batted in during his first season in Boston.
Houston counters with Bregman, an MVP candidate in his own right as well as a deadpan ham, master of the knowing smirk toward dugout TV cameras in the wake of a 31-homer season, and their two 2017 MVPs, regular-season winner Jose Altuve and World Series honoree Springer.
Baseball storytelling being what it is, much of the attention will be focused on the dynamic between Hinch and Cora. Hinch, in joking fashion, mused this week of his former lieutenant, “I’m trying to remember some things I told him that I wish I wouldn’t have.”
Fans at the ballpark, and viewers watching at home, would be advised to be patient. While MLB has made strides in reducing the average regular-season game to a little more than three hours, playoff baseball can be a marathon.
The Red Sox, in fact, were tied with the Dodgers for longest average game length during the regular season at three hours and 13 minutes, and each of their four games against the Yankees in the Division Series lasted at least 3½ hours.
The Astros’ longest Division Series game against Cleveland was 4:12 in their 11-3 blowout Game 3 clincher. So while Houston fans will get their wish for prime-time games after three matinees in the Cleveland series, it could make for some bleary-eyed commutes on the mornings after.
Such, though, is the attraction of playoff baseball. The game’s pace allows time for drama and storytelling, and Houston fans are likely to hear new stories about such Boston players as Brock Holt, the former Rice player who became the first player to hit for the cycle in the postseason after achieving the feat against the Yankees, and of Steve Pearce, who played for the wretched 2012 Astros as one of seven major league stops on the road that led him to Boston as a key contributor.
Local fans will be more familiar with the Astros storylines: Can the fearsome pitching rotation of Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton retain its regularseason dominance? Can shortstop Carlos Correa, hampered by a back injury since June, regain his batting stroke? Can the bullpen led by new acquisitions Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna prevail where Craig Kimbrel and the Boston bullpen has struggled?
Series ‘you want to see’
It could go seven games, but who knows? In the aforementioned three LCS games that featured two 100-win teams, all in an era when the series was a bestof-five affair, two ended in three-game sweeps: the 1976 Reds over the Phillies and the 1971 Orioles over the A’s. Only the 1977 Yankees’ win over Kansas City went the distance.
“You never know,” said Astros outfielder Josh Reddick. “Any team can get hot at the right time, and anyone can cool down at any given moment.
“There are two very talented teams in the National League, but in this clubhouse, we look at it as if we are the best team of the four still playing. This is a series that you want to see. If you love baseball, these are the two teams you want to be watching.”
It’s the Astros and Red Sox, the best that baseball has to offer.
“I don’t know how it will work,” Hinch said. “I don’t know what the story will be at the end. But going in, it’s pretty awesome.”
The Astros will rely heavily on second baseman Jose Altuve, the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player, to help set the tone offensively for its clash against the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series.