For a regular season that had more than its fair share of twists, turns, injuries, and slumps, the Astros did wind up with the second best record in the American League, and for a series at least, will have home field advantage. The Chicago White Sox invade Minute Maid Park, and if you'e an Astros fan of at least the last couple decades, those words might give you PTSD, as the last time the White Sox "invaded" Minute Maid in the postseason, they swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series.
I don't smell a sweep for either team in this series. My guess is the exact opposite. This best-of-five feels like a five-game series, with both teams quite adept at protecting their home turf. With that said, if the Astros are going to move onto their fifth consecutive ALCS, here are the four most important Astro players in this series:
It's been an absolute joy to see Lance McCullers not only return to the form that made him an All Star in the first half of the 2017 season, but surpass it to become the de facto ace of this staff. Throughout the season, McCullers did deal with some consistency issues, most notably having a penchant early in games to put up an inning where he would throw 30 to 40 pitches, effectively torpedoing his chance to go deep into said games. However, by September, he was an undeniable ace:
Now he is in line to start Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 5 of this series. McCullers' importance rests in his experience. While Valdez, Garcia, and Urquidy all received valuable postseason experience last season (and Urquidy in 2019, as well), McCullers has pitched in Game 7 of a World Series. With Zack Greinke relegated to bullpen duty, McCullers becomes the grizzled vet in this rotation.
McCullers lead the AL in:— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) October 4, 2021
Batting average against, .205
OPS against, .628
Fewest hits allowed per 9 IP, 6.76
Pitches per game, 99.6
For the second time in three seasons as an Astro, Pressly was named to the American League All Star team in 2021. While the rest of the bullpen underwent ebbs, flows, and ultimately, a fairly substantial facelift at the trade deadline, Pressly has remained the one constant. When the Astros won the World Series in 2017, they somehow did it without a true closer, as Ken Giles had long since lost his mind that year by the time October rolled around. This team doesn't have the margin for error that 2017 team did, so Pressly dialing up the pre All Star Game dominance he displayed earlier this season will be a huge key.
In a lineup with so many good hitters — the Astros had five hitters with OPS over .800, and two more (Bregman, Brantley) who would normally be over .800 in a healthy season — Alvarez is the toughest one to replace if anything were to happen with him. He has managed to stay healthy all season, and while the numbers this year don't match his historic rookie season of 2019, Alvarez remains the one Astro most likely to completely ruin a game for the opposition with a swing of the bat. The fact that Alvarez has honed his skills to where he is a passable left fielder is massive for (a) making sure Brantley can rest his knees by being a DH, and (2) ensuring Alvarez can remain in the lineup in National League parks in the World Series. If I had to throw one more everyday player from the seven elite hitters in here, it'd be Carlos Correa, because of the elite defensive skills that he brings.
Safe to say that Maldonado is not one of the seven elite level hitters I was referring to in the previous paragraph, and yet there may not be an everyday player whose overall skill set — which for Maldonado includes handling pitchers, fielding, and throwing out baserunners — is more irreplaceable than Maldonado's. Jason Castro is a fine backup catcher, but over the course of long series, Maldonado is a non negotiable piece. He is must have, particularly with three very young pitchers (Valdez, Garcia, Urquidy) likely to be part of this playoff rotation.
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