In 2017, the Astros and Red Sox met in the American League Division Series. The Astros won in four games thanks to a hot start against ace Chris Sale and home field advantage. This postseason, the stakes are higher as the two teams meet in the ALCS beginning Saturday night in Boston.
Both teams have had their share of changes in 2018. The Red Sox have the best record in the majors and two legit MVP candidates in Mookie Betts (the presumptive winner) and former Astro J.D. Martinez. The Astros have the best pitching in all of baseball and remain one of the most dangerous offensive teams as well.
At home, the Sox were a league best 57-24 at home. The Astros were a league best 57-24 on the road. Only the 1998 World Series between the Yankees and Padres had more wins between two opponents (212) and that was mostly due to the Yankees winning 114. These two are evenly matched and it shapes up to be a very tough series. Here are four things to watch for.
Astros Hitters vs. Red Sox Relievers
If there is a weakness for the Red Sox, it is probably in their bullpen with the exception of their closer Craig Kimbrel. The Astros have been masterful at taking advantage of weaker opposing pitching later in games. It's like they wait patiently, keeping things close, and then just roll over relievers. With the Sox starters some of the best in baseball one through three, don't expect high scoring early even if the Astros did bat around on ace Sale last year. This could be the key to the entire series, much the way it was against Cleveland.
Who strikes first?
In both the series and individual games, this is a critical stat, but particularly for the Astros. When Houston gets on the board first, it has the ability, thanks to its otherworldly pitching, to shut another team down. Even with their late inning heroics, the Astros are best when they are leading. This will also be critical for Boston given their deficiencies in the bullpen. Getting a lead will allow them to worry less about how the Astros might abuse their relievers. And, like any series, winning early means playing from in front with less pressure. This is especially important for the Red Sox, who need to win at home or run the risk of not returning.
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J.D. Martinez against his former team.
The travels of Martinez have been well documented. He came up with the Astros at the same time as Jose Altuve, but did not flourish until he moved on to other teams. Now, he is one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball and most definitely seeking to punish the team that gave up on him early in his career. Last year, he spent his postseason getting swept by the Dodgers while playing for Arizona, but signed a huge contract with Boston in the offseason. He is now poised to face off against his former team and guys he came up through the minors with. It should be a fascinating storyline for the series.
Astros back under the bright lights.
There are teams that enjoy the spotlight and there are teams that thrive in it. The latter is descriptive of this Astros squad that seems to relish every minute of big games. This has been particularly true this year of Alex Bregman, but George Springer, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander and others all manage to get better when it matters most. No one should be taking the Astros for granted this postseason, but as Bregman aired his displeasure with his team being pushed out of primetime last week in favor of the Yankees-Red Sox series, it is clear they want the white hot spotlight on them. And if anyone can turn playing day games into a chip the size of Minute Maid Park to carry on their shoulders, it's the Astros.