Prime-time clash just what the Astros want
But defending champs will have hands full with powerful Red Sox, writes Rob Longley.
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 guy who won the award last 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.”
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.