It's October and the Astros are back in the ALDS once again trying to defend their World Series title. They open up the best-of-five-game series against the Cleveland Indians Friday at Minute Maid Park with a 1:05 p.m. start — that's what happens when the other game that day is Yankees-Red Sox.
Last season, there were some who believed the Indians might have knocked off the Astros had they met in the playoffs. The were, after all, the hottest team in baseball the second half of 2017. But, that didn't happen and the Astros went on to win it all. This year, the Tribe look to take down the Astros despite not being quite the team they were last year.
Make no mistake, the Indians are a very good team, maybe the second best team in the American League. Still, the Astros are likely better. We're about to find out. Here are some things to watch for as the second season gets underway.
Justin Verlander takes the mound on Friday and the Astros have the best starting rotation in baseball. In the regular season, you could count on Verlander for a solid six or seven innings, but he got criminally little run support. How long will they stay with JV if that trend continues? The good news is they also have one of the better bullpens in baseball to back him up, which is one of the reasons why the Astros feel comfortable to bring only 11 pitchers into the series.
Correa struggled in the second half of the season, missing a long stretch of games due to a back injury. He took nearly a week off right at the end of the regular season before tuning up in the last two series. But, his health, even on a lineup this deep, is critically important. If he is unable to return to form, the Astros will have a hole to fill and will probably have to move Correa down the lineup. They would prefer to get their clean-up hitter back to his old self.
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Had the Astros taken only 12 bats into the playoffs, there is a chance Evan Gattis gets left off thanks to the stellar late-season play of Tyler White. With the added roster spots, Gattis and White will split duties. Despite White being more consistent, Gattis has the ability to get hot and, when he does, he can do serious damage. And he makes a great late-inning pinch hitting option for the 'Stros. It's a bit of an embarrassment of riches.
Savoring the Spotlight
Playoff experience is great, but only if you capitalize on your position. The fact is, this Astros squad loves the postseason spotlight. Alex Bregman seems to live for the big moment in particular and none of their pitchers are scared off when you put the ball in their hands. It's a team and a coaching staff that will be who they are, stick to their plan and not panic no matter what the circumstances. Having been there and done that is a huge advantage for the Astros in this one.
Prediction: Astros in 4