This time it counts. Not that the Houston Astros tearing apart the Boston Red Sox in the last week of the regular season did not count — the Astros outscored Boston 22-13 in winning three of four games. But this time, the series winner advances and the loser goes home.
The best-of-five series kicks off Thursday at 3 p.m. at Minute Maid Park with two of the best pitchers in the majors facing off against each other in Chris Sale versus Justin Verlander. Friday's 1 p.m. game from Minute Maid will feature Drew Pomeranz on the mound for the Red Sox versus Dallas Keuchel (game three starters for Sunday have yet to be named).
Boston's Chris Sale was the prize pitching acquisition of the offseason, with the Sox nabbing him from the Chicago White Sox. Sale was 17-8 for the season with a 2.90 ERA in 214.1 innings. Houston's Verlander was the prize late-season acquisition, with the Astros completing the trade for Verlander right before the trade deadline at the end of August. And Verlander (15-8, 3.36 ERA for the season) has definitely not disappointed, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in 34 innings with 46 strikeouts in Astros orange.
Friday's matchup between Pomeranz and Keuchel features two men who would likely be the staff ace on most other teams (and Keuchel, a former Cy Young winner, was the Astros ace until Verlander arrived). Pomeranz was 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA, while Keuchel went 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA despite missing a big chunk of the season with injuries.
While game three starters have not been named, odds are the Red Sox will go with Rick Porecello (Boston ruled out starting David Price during a press availability on Tuesday). The Astros will likely go with either Collin McHugh or Brad Peacock for game three, with the other being slated for game four unless that becomes a must-win game, with Verlander likely to return for a game five.
The Red Sox have the bullpen edge since Boston can turn to Craig Kimbrel, one of the game's elite closers. But the Red Sox cannot compete with the Astros offensively (very few teams this season can).
The Astros led the major leagues in just about every single offensive category. The team was No. 1 with 896 runs scored, 854 RBI, .823 OPS, .282 team batting average, .346 on-base percentage, .478 slugging percentage, and 1,581 hits. And the team was second in the majors (behind only the Yankees) with 238 home runs.
Jose Altuve once again won the batting title, with a .346 batting average. He finished second in the majors with 204 hits and sixth with a .410 on-base percentage. He was second to George Springer with 24 homers, and he scored 112 runs while knocking in 81.
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Springer hit 34 homers despite missing time with an injury. Carlos Correa smacked 24, and super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez hit 23. Alex Bregman, after the All-Star Break, hit .318 with a .367 on-base percentage and 18 doubles while hitting 19 homers on the season with 71 RBI and 88 runs scored.
The Red Sox are not a power hitting team, finishing 27th in homers hit for the season, 23rd in OPS and 26th in slugging percentage. The offense is led by Mookie Betts, who scored 101 runs and knocked on 102 RBI while hitting a team-leading 24 homers. Xander Bogaerts hit 10 homers while scoring 94 runs and getting 62 RBI. Mitch Moreland with 23 homers and Hanley Ramirez with 22 dingers supplied the rest of Boston's power.
The Astros are a better team than the Red Sox. Altuve, Correa and Springer are better players than just about every player on every other team in the majors. This team is good — real good — and being able to go from Justin Verlander to Dallas Keuchel gives the Astros a great one-two punch in the rotation.
Our prediction: The Astros win this series. It will go four games (Boston will win game three at Fenway Park on Sunday). Will the Astros put up 12 runs on the Red Sox in any of the games like what happened at the end of the regular season? That’s unlikely. But the offense should hit the ball an awful lot, and it should definitely be a fun series for Astros fans to watch.