After a pair of four game American League Division series, the stage has been set for the Championship series in the junior circuit, and it’s going to be a great one. This year’s edition is a familiar matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, who also squared off in the 2018 ALCS. In that series, the Red Sox dispatched Houston in 5 games, although the series offered far more dramatics than one might expect from a gentleman’s sweep. This series is sure to provide more iconic postseason moments just like last time, although both these teams are dramatically different since they last met.
Three years ago when these teams met up, it was the story of two titans going head to head for the pennant. This time around, things are different. The Red Sox were projected as a .500-at-best ball club before the season. Just a couple weeks ago they didn’t even know if they’d be playing past game 162. Now they are on the doorstep of a fifth AL Pennant in 18 years. On the other hand, the Astros, aside from a sub .500 regular season in 2020 (after which they immediately took the Rays to 7 games in the ALCS), have maintained their stranglehold over the AL West. They are a far cry from the 103 win 2018 squad or the World Series winning 2017 team, but these Astros are still among the best teams in the American League. Both teams have lost significant star power since last time, with the Red Sox trading Mookie Betts and David Price, while the Astros have lost Gerrit Cole and George Springer to free agency, and Justin Verlander who’s missed the entire season due to Tommy John Surgery and is slated to be a free agent this winter.
While these two teams took very different paths to get to this point, the engine of both teams is the same: the bats. The Astros and Red Sox were among the five teams to score 5+ runs per game this season, ranking first and fourth respectively. The Astros have managed to compensate for the loss of George Springer, courtesy of a breakout season from Kyle Tucker and a career year from Yuli Gurriel. The Red Sox rebounded from a dreadful 2020 season thanks to JD Martinez returning to form, as well as getting key contributions out of some under the radar free agent signings last winter, in Kiké Hernandez and Hunter Renfroe.
Ultimately, this series will come down to pitching. Both teams have plenty of question marks in the rotation and bullpen. The Astros even more so after it was announced that Lance McCullers would miss the series after leaving game four with arm tightness. Thursday afternoon, each manager announced their starters for the first two games of the series. Game one will feature Chris Sale and Framber Valdez. Sale has struggled so far this postseason, as well as his last handful of starts down the stretch in the regular season. Although, it has been reported that Sale believes he found the mechanical issue that was causing him to struggle with his fastball and changeup command. If he has those weapons back, he’ll be in position to dominate. It is worth mentioning, however briefly, that Sale got his lunch against this Astros team in both the 2017 ALDS and 2018 ALCS, where he allowed a total of 11 earned runs across 13.2 innings. It was a bit surprising for Sale to get the game one nod over Nathan Eovaldi, but the reasoning seems sound. Cora believes that in order for this team to make some serious noise, Chris Sale is going to have to play a major role. There’s no point in shying away from using him in game 1 when he’ll have to get used later anyway. Additionally, if Sale does falter, this would allow Cora to turn to Tanner Houck (or Nick Pivetta) for bulk middle innings, just as he did against the Rays. By doing this in game 1 instead of game 2, this allows Houck (and Sale) to be available again a day earlier for potential appearances later in the series. Starting Sale in game 1 is as much about trusting him as it is about not trusting him. In either scenario, it’s better to start him in game 1. His adversary is in a very different boat. Framber Valdez dominated the Red Sox in 2 starts against them in the regular season. In back to back starts on June 2nd and 8th, Valdez limited the Red Sox to just two runs across 14.1 innings, while striking out 18. The Astros won both games. One shouldn’t put too much stock into these starts given how long ago they were.
Game 2 starters will be Nate Eovaldi and Luis Garcia. Nate has established himself in Boston as not only a dominant postseason force, but also the best pitcher in this rotation. Nate led the American League in fWAR (5.6) this season, trailing only Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler in the NL. He did this by leading MLB in BB/9 (1.73) and finishing fourth in HR/9 (0.74). While Nate isn’t the dominant strikeout artist that you might expect from a starter with his velocity, he dominates instead by using his 5 pitch arsenal to induce weak contact and limit free base runners. Luis Garcia put together a nice season in Houston, to the tune of a 130 ERA+ and a 3.63 FIP. Garcia features a 5 pitch mix as well, but will only throw 3 in a given at bat. Righties will see his fastball, slider, and cutter, while lefties can expect a healthy dose of the fastball, curveball, and changeup. Garcia made one start against the Red Sox in the regular season, which was eerily similar to each of Valdez’: 7 innings, 1 run, 5 hits, 6 strikeouts, 1 walk.
This series could go any number of ways. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of this series, as within four decimal places, it gave each team exactly even odds to win the series, prior to the announcement that McCullers would miss the series. That loss does tip the scales slightly in the Red Sox favor, but it’s still hardly more than a coinflip (without McCullers, ZiPS gives Boston a 53% chance of victory). This series will be a battle to see which pitching staff can better limit the damage done by the other side. The Red Sox have a red hot offense, but might be running into a buzzsaw that they’ve already seen in games 1 and 2. The Astros have the best offense in baseball with no easy outs outside of catcher Martin Maldonado. But, Sale and Eovaldi both have the potential to shut down any lineup when they’re on. While it is impossible to predict with any meaningful accuracy the outcome of this series, there are some certainties. There will be iconic games, high emotions, some loud home crowds, and some monster home runs. While I doubt many fans outside of Houston and New England wanted to see this rematch, it will provide an excellent product to watch.
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