With Saturday’s game between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros in the books, the Red Sox took more than a traditional victory out of Fenway Park. The 6-3 final score gave Boston its second consecutive title in the American League East Division, the first time the Sox have tallied two straight first-place finishes since 1916 and 1917.
The rainy, slippery field at the aged Fenway wasn’t enough to keep catcher Christian Vazquez from running full speed into his closer and battery-mate, Craig Kimbrel, when the Sox finally locked things up. It also prevented their opponents from reaching the top spot in the overall American League standings, allowing the Cleveland Indians to clinch the number-one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AL Postseason.
Boston had been seeking to clinch the outright title in the AL East for a while but finally put the division, and the New York Yankees, away on Saturday, to set up an AL Division Series matchup against, weirdly enough, the Astros. If this weekend’s four-game series is any indicator of what is to come in the ALDS, the playoff matchup will border on epic.
The Astros locked down a milestone of their own just a day prior, winning 100 games for the first time since 1998, the only other time Houston had reached the mark. It’s clear that Houston is as stacked from top to bottom as any major league team, with a myriad of weapons at manager A.J. Hinch‘s disposal. With that being said, John Farrell has himself a plethora of skilled, multi-faceted players to match those of Hinch when the Division Series begins on Thursday, October 5, at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Boston vs. Houston has a chance at becoming one of the more exciting and intriguing series in recent memory, for a number of reasons. Let’s take a look at who, what, when, where, and why this five-game series could be an all-timer.
Excellence of Starting Pitching
Although both rotations have been mired in discussions about the bottom two starters in the four-man staff, the Red Sox and Astros both boast extremely top-heavy and pretty deep rotations. Your presumed Game 1 starter if you’re in the Boston camp is Chris Sale, a potential Cy Young Award winner this year, facing off against either Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander, former winners of the award for pitching dominance. Whichever Astro sits in the dugout for Game 1 will take the hill in Game 2 against, most likely, 17-game winner Drew Pomeranz.
Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Doug Fister could all find themselves with starts for the Sox, as all three have cases that could slot them into the third and fourth options — at any rate, they Sox have a steady back end of the rotation with an additional bullpen hurler. The Astros are faced a similar problem, but it’s arguably not a problem at all: after Keuchel and Verlander, the ‘Stros must make up their collective mind between 13-2 Brad Peacock, fireballer Lance McCullers Jr., former 19-game winner Collin McHugh, and elite ground-ball pitcher Charlie Morton.
My guess for both rotations (a pure guess): Sale, Pomeranz, Porcello, Fister; Verlander, Keuchel, Peacock, Morton.
Superior Bullpens, Including the “Firemen”
In any situation with the starting rotations, both teams are equipped with splendid bullpens, highlighted by the potential “firemen” relievers of David Price and McCullers. Former Yankees great Johnny Murphy was described as “the fireman” as a reliever who could seamlessly be inserted into high-leverage situations and get his team out of the hole, a role storied starter David Price will play for the Red Sox — countered by McCullers for the Astros. Both are typically starting pitchers, with a combined 142-80 career record, but as specialty relievers will be extremely effective.
That’s not where it ends for the Boston and Houston pens, however, as the Sox boast guys like Kimbrel, Addison Reed, Joe Kelly, and Matt Barnes — Boston’s bullpen ranked fourth in opponent’s batting average (.225) and second in bullpen ERA (3.11). Houston can trot out All-Stars Chris Devenski and Will Harris, as well as Luke Gregerson or 34-save closer Ken Giles. The Astros had MLB’s highest number of reliever strikeouts (658) and are fanning 10.9 batters per nine innings pitched.
Best Players Getting Hot at the Right Time
While Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts are the centers of position player consistency in MLB, their immense supporting casts have gotten red hot as of late. Altuve’s partner in the middle infield, former AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, has 13 hits and 10 runs batted in over his last six games, including an impressive climb in season batting average (.299 to .315 in just eight games played). Josh Reddick (.391 in last 19 games), Yuli Gurriel (.925 on base plus slugging in September), George Springer (team-high 34 home runs), and Alex Bregman (stellar all-around play) have each upped the ante as well for the Astros.
The Red Sox have seen their ups and downs this year but appear to be putting things together at the right time. Xander Bogaerts is heating up (27 hits in September), rookie third-bagger Rafael Devers has been a saving grace in the Boston hot corner (27 September hits, 10 home runs since his recall), and two reliable, pesky veterans in Eduardo Nunez and Dustin Pedroia could be ready come playoff time.
If it seems like these teams are evenly matched, it’s because they are.
Versatility in Each Dugout
Baseball experts often talk about the modern “utility man,” a player with extreme versatility who can play anywhere on the diamond in a moment’s notice. In terms of utility men, Marwin Gonzalez and Brock Holt have little contest atop the rankings.
Holt, a superb defender with a great arm and quick hands, has played every position besides pitcher and catcher with the Red Sox in his time in Boston. He ain’t shabby at the plate, with a career .263 average in the AL for the lefty. Boston need not worry about injuries or late-game replacements, for Holt is always there and ready. Boston also sports trade deadline acquisition and World Series shocker last season Rajai Davis as a stolen-base threat, in addition to former All-Star Chris Young and platooning catchers of Vazquez and Sandy Leon.
Gonzalez, however, is seemingly on another level. Like Holt, Gonzalez has played every spot on the Astros defense outside of the battery, but has an endless amount of offensive potential and skill to burn in the playoffs. A switch-hitter, Gonzalez led the Astros in RBIs and was one of 12 Houston batters with more than 10 home runs this season (23). The Astros can also deploy Cameron Maybin‘s speed and defensive excellence late in games, have switch-hitting future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran pinch hit or DH, and swap catchers Brian McCann and Evan Gattis in and out.
Home Field Advantage
Another interesting narrative that really isn’t a narrative at all: the Astros were weirdly far better away from Minute Maid Park than inside the domed field on Crawford and Texas in downtown Houston. Their road record fell at a dominant 53-28, as opposed to their win-loss splits at home, 48-33. Five games doesn’t seem like a big difference, but everything in the MLB postseason is put under a microscope. If you see the Astros destroy the Sox at Minute Maid, then the series might as well be over; they’re gonna rake on the road no matter what.
On the flip side, if Boston were to steal a road game — which is possible, given that their runs for ratio is better away from Fenway than there — they could return to Boston and cap this off with their .600 home winning percentage. Again, it’s immensely intriguing to have something as valuable as home field be an afterthought, even for teams over 1,800 miles apart.
Pick your favorite Division Series matchup; they all have their own element of excitement and playoff glory never to not be had in the Major Leagues. But for my money, the Astros vs. Red Sox series will be must-watch television. To Houston we go.