Astros against Red Sox could be ‘spe­cial.’

Some of base­ball’s dy­namic play­ers to be on dis­play in bat­tle for pen­nant

San Antonio Express-News - - SPORTS - By David Bar­ron STAFF WRITER­ Twit­ter: @df­bar­ron

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.

Mirror images

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.”

Karen Warren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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