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Astros to test championship mettle in ALCS

Hinch says club is prepared; players eager to face Red Sox
MLB.com @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- Funny thing about pressure and how it manifests itself. Torture to some, joy to others, and isn't that the thin line separating cocky and confident? On the other hand, this could be the single thing -- mostly intangible -- defining baseball's defending World Series champions.

"If you can't enjoy the playoffs and kind of get up for stuff like this, then you're playing the wrong sport," Astros outfielder George Springer said. "This is why we play all those games -- to be playing in places like Fenway Park in October."

HOUSTON -- Funny thing about pressure and how it manifests itself. Torture to some, joy to others, and isn't that the thin line separating cocky and confident? On the other hand, this could be the single thing -- mostly intangible -- defining baseball's defending World Series champions.

"If you can't enjoy the playoffs and kind of get up for stuff like this, then you're playing the wrong sport," Astros outfielder George Springer said. "This is why we play all those games -- to be playing in places like Fenway Park in October."

That's what the Astros will be doing when they open the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox on Saturday. This is a matchup that seemed destined to happen after a regular season in which these were the two winningest teams in the Majors: the Red Sox finished 108-54, while the Astros went 103-59.

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"It's great," Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said. "You love to compete. The Boston Red Sox, they love to compete. Everybody in that clubhouse loves to compete, and so do we. It's going to make for some great games and just great baseball all the way around. It's going to be fun. Everyone in here's looking forward to it."

That's probably the definition of a championship vibe, or as close to a definition as anyone can come up with.

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"It's kind of how we are," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "I don't remember the last game that there was any sort of nerves or timidness. Certainly no fear. I think we feel prepared. We feel talented. We feel like we've got options. We've got different guys that can step up and do well.

"We have a nice little vibe about us, and it's grown over the year. I think success helps breed that a little bit more. You won't ever use the word panic when it comes to us."

That's surely the confidence born of making the postseason three times in four seasons and winning a pair of ALCS elimination games against the Yankees last season before surviving a heart-stopping seven-game World Series against the Dodgers.

Video: AJ Hinch discusses making decisions in ALCS

The Astros clinched the AL Division Series at Fenway Park last season, then finished off the World Series at Dodger Stadium. After a regular season in which they had the second-largest run differential in 57 years (263), this is where they expected to be.

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"I think we have the best team, but we have to go out and prove it," Hinch said. "This is a really hard series to win. To win four games against the team with the most wins in the league, that in itself is a challenge. We don't need any extra anything. We're going to show up ready to play.

"Our guys know what's at stake. The guys who were here last year really get what we're playing for. The guys that haven't been there want their story to be told as a World Series champion. We've got to get four wins to get there, and then you've got another four wins to win it. But you've got to win one game before you worry about winning the series."

Video: ALCS Gm1: Verlander takes on Sale in duel of aces

Here's what the Astros did in 2018:

• They had 41 comeback wins, including 11 when trailing into the seventh inning. ("We believe we can come back late in games," Hinch said. "I just think our guys know we can win, and we can beat you in a lot of different ways. If it's not me, it's somebody else. You throw in a really strong rotation and bullpen, and our guys feel like they're going to win today.")

• Road record of 57-24.

• Best rotation in the Majors (3.16 ERA).

• Best bullpen in the Majors (3.03 ERA).

Video: Red Sox-Astros top moments from 2018 season games

"The fun part about this team is that the bar is so high for these guys," Hinch said, "and they continue to try to work toward exceeding expectations, either personally or as a team. It's a great attribute for these guys to continue to reach for it."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

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