[Editor’s note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, this preview sat waiting to be published over the weekend. Luckily, the series is tied 1-1, so let’s just pretend it’s a preview for a best-of-5 series, shall we?]
The Boston Red Sox reached the American League Championship Series for the first time since 2013 after their defeat of the New York Yankees this past Tuesday night. Sending their biggest rivals home from the postseason was a cause for tremendous celebration in Boston, but the time for celebrating is over as they turn to the task ahead of them.
The Red Sox will be taking on the defending World Series champion Houston Astros in what is sure to be a closely contested seven-game series. The Astros and the Red Sox had similar seasons, with both teams essentially being in total control of their respective divisions all season long. Both teams also lean on a few front-line starters, consistent offense from all nine hitters, and a reliable ninth-inning performer to close out the games.
There is no denying that the 2018 ALCS will, in fact, feature the two best teams the American League has to offer this year. Both teams will go into this series with particular advantages that will make this a close series.
Houston’s Rotation Has Experience & Performance Edge
When looking at this series, the first and most important place to look is at the starting pitching matchups. Game 1 between Justin Verlander and Chris Sale has the potential to be one of the greatest pitching showdowns in recent MLB history. These two pitchers are so close in talent and ability that it is almost a toss-up as to who will come away with a victory in that game.
However, the rest of the pitching matchups undoubtedly favor the Astros, whose starting rotation is a major reason as to why they were able to reach the ALCS again in the first place. Game 2, barring any unforeseen late changes, will feature Gerrit Cole against David Price. Cole shredded the Cleveland Indians in his playoff debut with the Astros, striking out 12 batters in seven innings of work.
Price’s first playoff performance had a much different result. Price lasted just 1.2 innings against the Yankees, surrendering three runs and taking the loss for the Red Sox. Price will look to rebound from that performance against Houston this weekend, but his unimpressive playoff history suggests that such a turnaround may not be possible.
Not only is Houston’s starting rotation performing better at the moment, but it also has the edge when it comes to playoff experience. Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton all went through this journey just last year, while Boston’s starters only saw four games of action as they were swiftly eliminated from the playoffs by these same Astros.
The Red Sox do not know what they will get from Price, nor do they know if Nathan Eovaldi, a helter-skelter pitcher by nature, can repeat his brilliant performance from Game 3 of the ALDS against New York. The Astros, by contrast, know exactly what they can expect from their experienced and consistent starting pitchers, thus giving them a significant edge in that department.
Alex Cora‘s Intimate Knowledge of the Astros Will Benefit the Red Sox.
At this time last year, Cora was sitting next to Astros manager AJ Hinch, serving as the team’s bench coach. Now, he’ll be sitting across the diamond in the opposing dugout as the leader at the helm for the Red Sox.
Cora does not know all the secrets and strategies that Hinch does, but there is no denying that he has intimate knowledge of the Astros and their players. Specifically, Cora is tuned into the Astros’ tendencies, weaknesses, and behaviors that the Red Sox pitchers can exploit.
Even if Cora is able to provide just small anecdotes to his pitchers about players in the Astros lineup, it will be an advantage. For example, Cora can sit down with Sale and say, “Player X doesn’t like it when he’s pitched inside, so buzz him inside to start the at-bat and you can rattle him.” It is knowledge like this that can give the Red Sox a small edge in this series that could tilt it in their favor should they find enough holes to exploit.
Houston’s Stars are Shining, Boston’s is not … yet.
Often, these playoff series come down to which team’s superstars step up and put their team on their backs and which ones do not. Thus far, Houston’s star players have answered the call in a big way. Alex Bregman, who is very much in the American League MVP conversation, is hitting .556 with five runs scored and four runs driven in so far in just three postseason games. George Springer is also red-hot, hitting .429 while clobbering three home runs already this postseason.
For Boston, it is a bit of a different story. The Red Sox offense has not had one singular player that has stood out as the biggest contributor. The team has received offensive boosts from unlikely candidates, such as Christian Vazquez and even a postseason cycle from Brock Holt, but it has not seen that same boost from its bonafide superstars.
Mookie Betts, a leading candidate for the American League MVP award, is hitting just .188 so far this postseason. The Red Sox will certainly not complain about getting contributions from other parts of the lineup, but in order to win against a team like the Astros, they will need Betts to provide a spark.
Prediction: Astros in 7 games
This series has all the makings to turn into an all-time classic. Baseball’s best regular-season team against the defending World Series champions. Both teams are coming into the series with a ton of momentum. The Red Sox vanquished their biggest rivals, while the Astros made quick work of the Cleveland Indians.
These teams are too talented and too similar for this series to turn into any sort of blowout, hence why it is likely to go all seven games. However, Houston seems to have the advantage in more areas than the Red Sox do. Great pitching tends to beat great hitting, and Houston’s starting rotation, combined with its stalwart late-inning bullpen talent, could very well shut down Boston’s potent offense.
The Astros will find out exactly how difficult it is to achieve back-to-back World Series berths because the Red Sox will give them everything they can handle in this series. That being said, Houston looks poised, focused, and ready to overcome any challenge at this point.