Should they just start calling the American League Championship Series the Houston Astros invitational? Remarkably, this is the fifth straight ALCS trip for the Astros, who will be facing a Red Sox team that is in this round for the seventh time in the last 19 seasons. This best-of-seven series will open tonight at Minute Maid Park.
It will be another reunion between Red Sox manager Alex Cora and the Astros. Cora was Houston’s bench coach during their 2017 World Series-winning season. Of course, that title has come under heavy scrutiny for the sign-stealing scandal that Cora was found to be a central part of, leading to his suspension from MLB for the 2020 season. Yes, that will get talked about a lot in the coming days, and Cora will continue to say all the right things, as he has all along.
“I texted him yesterday when he won, and he texted me right away [after Game 4],” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said of Cora. “When I got to my locker, I had a text message. He told me yesterday, ‘See you soon,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ Right now, I told him ‘See you soon.’”
And then the games will start and the focus will shift to where it should be -- on the field, where two battle-tested teams will square off for a chance to compete in the Fall Classic. Houston has a high-powered offense that scored 863 runs during the regular season. However, the Sox can also swing the bats, as they compiled 829 runs and got hot against the Rays in the ALDS. Both teams have had issues in the bullpen. Houston has a better overall pitching staff, as evidenced by a 3.78 season ERA -- compared to 4.26 for Boston.
Both teams took out their opponents in four games in the ALDS. The Astros did so in much more convincing fashion, outscoring the White Sox, 31-18, while Boston edged out Tampa Bay, 26-20. This is the rubber match between these two squads in October. The Astros defeated the Red Sox in four games in the ‘17 Division Series. The Sox returned the favor by downing the Astros in five games in the ‘18 ALCS.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
The game will air in primetime on FOX at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on Friday. It is also available to stream on MLB.TV with authentication.
What are the starting lineups?
Red Sox: The Red Sox have picked the right time of year to be taking some of their best at-bats of the season. Not only are the Sox hitting with power, but they are also doing a good job with situational hitting.
Astros: The Astros averaged 7.8 runs per game in the ALDS with pretty much the same lineup, though rookie center fielder Jake Meyers will start on the bench after he banged his shoulder into the wall in Game 4 of the ALDS. Even so, Chas McCormick is a solid replacement:
Who are the starting pitchers?
Red Sox: The expectation was that Cora would start Nathan Eovaldi, his best starting pitcher this season, in Game 1. But in a surprise decision, Cora tabbed struggling lefty Chris Sale (5-1, 3.16 ERA in the regular season) to open the series with Eovaldi going in Game 2. Due to recent adjustments Sale has made to improve his changeup and fastball command, the Red Sox expect a resurgence from the left-hander. This, even though Sale has recorded just 10 outs over his past two starts, lasting only one inning in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays.
One reason Cora likes Sale in Game 1 is that the Red Sox will have a fully-rested bullpen due to getting three days off between the ALDS and the ALCS. Sale is 5-5 with a 3.08 ERA lifetime against the Astros, including the postseason.
Astros: Left-hander Framber Valdez (11-6, 3.14 ERA), who would have started Game 4 for the Astros had Game 3 not been rained out, will get the ball in Game 1 instead. Valdez is better against right-handers (.626 opposing OPS) than he was against left-handers (.717), thanks to one of the best curveballs in the league. The key will be controlling walks; he averaged 3.88 walks per nine innings. Sidelined for the first two months of the season because of a broken finger suffered in Spring Training, he threw 134 2/3 innings, allowing 110 hits (12 homers) and 58 walks with 125 strikeouts.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Red Sox: As veteran Cora watchers know, it’s best not to predict what he will do with his bullpen in postseason games. Anything goes with Cora, including the liberal use of starting pitchers as “rovers.” Nick Pivetta seems to be the rover of choice this October, but there’s a chance the righty could move back into the rotation. Rookie Rule 5 Draft pick Garrett Whitlock is Cora’s most trusted reliever, and he will likely get most of his work in the eighth or ninth inning. Tanner Houck, the electric 25-year-old righty, can give dominant bulk performances, such as when he fired five strong innings in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays.
For the Red Sox, the beauty of beating the Rays in four games instead of five was the chance to reset a ‘pen that has been asked to do a lot lately. Ryan Brasier, Hansel Robles, Whitlock and Houck are four pitchers in particular who will benefit from three days without a game.
Astros: Astros relievers threw 17 1/3 innings in four games of the ALDS, which was one out shy of the workload of the starters (17 2/3). All in all, they’re in really good shape despite that heavy workload, especially with two days off between the ALDS and ALCS. Yimi García and Phil Maton giving them quality innings in Game 4 was a huge development, and Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly at the back end were nails. The big question will be how they cover potentially even more innings in a longer ALCS, especially if Lance McCullers Jr. isn’t able to start. That means Cristian Javier or Zack Greinke could move back into the rotation, but they’re not stretched out to pitch deep into games.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Red Sox: For the start of the series, Cora will have a full deck coming off three days of rest.
Any injuries of note?
Red Sox: Righty Garrett Richards was taken off the roster in the Division Series when he strained his left hamstring, which makes him ineligible for this series. Star third baseman Rafael Devers is dealing with discomfort in his right forearm that is exacerbated when he swings and misses at high fastballs. When pitchers miss low, he’s been making them pay. Go back and look at his three-run bomb in Game 4 of the ALDS for proof. Martinez hasn’t been running at close to 100 percent since he sprained his left ankle tripping over second base in the final game of the regular season, but the Red Sox generally don’t rely on the big slugger for his legs.
Astros: Meyers banged his shoulder into the wall in Chicago in Game 4 and had to be removed from the game, so his status for the series is up in the air. If he can’t play, McCormick will be the starter in center. McCullers left his start in Game 4 of the ALDS after only four innings with tightness in his arm. His status remains up in the air, too.
Who is hot and who is not?
Red Sox : The Astros can only hope that the three days off for the Red Sox will cool off Hernández, who hammered Rays pitching in the ALDS, going 9-for-20 with three doubles and two homers. Schwarber loves the October spotlight and is 6-for-19 with two homers and a 1.041 OPS during Boston’s current run. Dalbec has been prone to streaks in both directions and he’s in one of his cold runs right now, with an 0-for-10 mark so far this postseason.
Astros: Brantley has a 15-game postseason hitting streak, which ties for the longest active streak among active players (Alcides Escobar has a 15-game run, all from 2015). Altuve (.313), Correa (.385, four RBIs), Tucker (5-for-17, two homers, seven RBIs), Alvarez (3-for-11) and Bregman (6-for-16) each swung the bat well in the ALDS, while Gurriel went 3-for-17 in the ALDS, including two hits in Game 4, and Maldonado went 1-for-15.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• The Astros dominated this matchup during the regular season, taking five of seven games from the Red Sox while winning the scoring battle, 42-25.
• In the 2018 ALCS, the sides split the first two games and Boston stunningly won all three games in Houston to advance to the World Series
• The Astros are the third team to reach the LCS in five consecutive seasons, joining the Braves (’95-’99) and A’s (’71-’75).
• Cora has a 15-4 postseason record and his .789 winning percentage is the best in history for any manager with a minimum of 15 playoff games.
• For venerable Astros skipper Dusty Baker, this is his fourth trip to the LCS. He is looking for his second pennant and his first trip to the World Series since ‘02.
• Hernández was selected by the Astros in the sixth round (191st overall) of the 2009 MLB Draft. He appeared in 24 games with the Astros in 2014 before being dealt to the Marlins.