Roundtable: Settle in for slugfest in ALCS

October 15th, 2021

The Astros and Red Sox had similar experiences in their American League Division Series, wrapping up each one in four games, often with relentless offensive attacks that eventually wore down opposing pitchers.

So who has the advantage in the AL Championship Series? reporters gathered to discuss:

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: The Astros and Red Sox last met in the ALCS three years ago, and here we are again, though, obviously, a lot has changed since then. These two teams have quite a few things in common, but the one that stands out the most is that they both absolutely raked through their respective ALDS. Should we expect the same this round? You think it’s going to be a slugfest?

Brian McTaggart, Astros beat reporter: I do expect it to be a very high-scoring series. The Astros are going to be a little pitching-thin if Lance McCullers Jr. is out, and Houston's offense has been on a rampage in the playoffs (and the last part of the regular season). The Astros scored 31 runs in four games in the ALDS against the White Sox, and they've swung the bats well against and in the past, too.

Ian Browne, Red Sox beat reporter: I haven't seen the Red Sox this confident hitting-wise the entire season as they were in the ALDS. They shifted the 1-2 spots of and , and accidentally moved to the six hole after he hurt his ankle because they were being cautious with him, and it wound up giving the lineup more balance.

I think the Red Sox are functioning much better as an offense now than when they faced Houston in late May and early June. Should be interesting to see how this plays out. It's hard to imagine Boston's pitching staff shutting down those Houston bats.

Footer: It’s easy to dismiss the effectiveness of the Red Sox bullpen, but it has actually been a strength of the team of late, when it’s mattered the most. Is that the most glaring difference between the two clubs? Relief pitching seems to be one of the biggest uncertainties for the Astros (though not the only one -- we’ll get to that in a second). Who has the advantage?

Browne: One thing you have to keep in mind with the Red Sox for as long as Alex Cora is the manager: He manages a bullpen COMPLETELY different in October than he does during the regular season. Cora gets his starters to completely buy into the "spikes-on" mentality on days they aren't starting. For example, Sale and Eovaldi will pitch the first two games, and everyone else from the staff will be available to pitch relief in Games 1 and 2, including and .

McTaggart: The only game the Astros lost in the ALDS is when their bullpen completely collapsed. It certainly has to be a concern for them moving forward, especially if their starters don't work deep into games. Houston had trouble getting the ball to the back end of the bullpen for much of the regular season, even after it traded for , and .

They're going to need some length from and some big mid-game outs from Garcia and Maton, a right-hander who could neutralize the Boston lefty bats.

Footer: The Astros were dealt a potentially devastating blow with the news that McCullers had an MRI on his right forearm and may not be available for the ALCS. Tags, as you wrote, the Astros are preparing to move on in the postseason without him. Stating the obvious, how crushing is this for the rotation?

McTaggart: It's a massive blow. He was their best starter in the regular season, and two of the four games the Astros won in the ALDS came in games McCullers started. The Astros will have , and in Games 1-3, but that's certainly a long way from Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation in 2019.

Garcia has been very good at home and Urquidy has a World Series win under his belt, but the pitching gets really thin in a hurry. or Javier could be pulled from the bullpen for Game 4, or could be activated.

Browne: I know that's going to make the Red Sox feel a lot more confident about their chances. Boston has the health advantage right now. They have no injuries to speak of on the hitting or pitching side, other than , a middle reliever. Cora knows better than anyone that McCullers has the best stuff on the Astros. So yes, the Boston bats will take a little more swagger heading into this series knowing they won't have to face him.

Footer: Ian, we went from not knowing exactly Sale’s role is to finding out that he’s suddenly tapped as the Game 1 starter. What’s the deal?

Browne: The deal is that Cora is wildly unpredictable! Seriously, Sale has been busting his butt ever since his shaky start in Game 2 at Tampa Bay six days ago to fix his issues. He narrowed it down to a pair of big issues. His changeup and fastball command weren't close to where they needed them to be. Sale has been on the mound literally every day since his last start to fine-tune.

He is the ultimate competitor, and the Red Sox still trust him in this spot. If the Sox had a lead going into the ninth inning against the Rays in Game 4, Cora had him set to come in as the closer. The game was tied, so it didn't materialize. But that proved he didn't lose confidence in his ace.

Footer: Finish this sentence: [The team I cover] will win the pennant if ...

Browne: The Red Sox will win the pennant if Sale can come close to being what you'd expect, and I'm not talking about vintage Sale of 2012-18. I'm talking what Sale was doing when he first got back from Tommy John and can go five or six innings and allow two or so runs.

They also need their defense to be as good as it was against the Rays. Boston's defense was an issue all year, so it will be interesting to see if they can continue to play clean baseball. If the Red Sox don't beat themselves in this series, I believe they have a real shot to upset the Astros.

McTaggart: If they mash. The Astros led the Major Leagues in runs scored in the regular season and averaged 7.8 runs in the ALDS. They are going to have to score enough to offset the shortages on their pitching staff. There is no better 1-7 lineup in the big leagues than , , , , , and .

They can beat you line to line, gap to gap and with power. And they have tons of postseason experience and plenty of confidence.