BOSTON -- A combined 211 regular-season victories promise to set the stage for an epic American League Championship Series, as the Red Sox (108 wins) will attempt to upend the defending World Series champion Astros (103 wins) beginning on Saturday evening at Fenway Park."I think it's the two best teams
BOSTON -- A combined 211 regular-season victories promise to set the stage for an epic American League Championship Series, as the Red Sox (108 wins) will attempt to upend the defending World Series champion Astros (103 wins) beginning on Saturday evening at Fenway Park.
"I think it's the two best teams playing each other, so it's going to be fun," Houston's Alex Bregman said. "You've got two of the best fan bases in baseball, two of the best pitching staffs, two of the best offenses going at it. And it's going to be fun."
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You can say that again. Here are five things we could be talking about after Game 1:
1. Sale's humanity
Astros manager AJ Hinch has referred to Chris Sale as having "weapons beyond human nature," but the left-hander is still smarting from the shellacking that the Astros handed him in Game 1 of the AL Division Series last October, when Sale was pounded for seven runs and nine hits -- including three homers -- in his postseason debut. The Red Sox lost that game, 8-2, and the series.
Sale has learned from that experience. He pitched well in relief against the Astros later in that series and has been a difference-maker so far for the Red Sox, striking out eight over 5 1/3 innings to pick up the win in Game 1 of the ALDS over the Yankees. Boston manager Alex Cora then used Sale for three key outs in the deciding ALDS Game 4 at New York.
"Obviously these are the biggest games of the year," Sale said. "We fought long and hard to get here, so at the end of the day you've got to look at it as the same game. It's still the same process. You've got to score more runs than the other team and try to give up less."
• Gear up for the ALCS:Astros | Red Sox
2. Verlander's preparation
The bright lights offer no intimidation to Justin Verlander, who says that you either want to be in the moment or you don't. Judging by his postseason track record, it's clear that Verlander has no shortage of the necessary confidence to succeed on the game's biggest stages.
"When I'm walking to the mound, I know I've done everything I possibly can to this point, all the way back to my first workout of the offseason," Verlander said. "I've done everything to build up to this moment, to this point in time. I know I'm as prepared as I possibly can be physically and mentally. The rest is just time to go play baseball."
Verlander allowed three runs to Boston in 8 2/3 innings over two appearances in last year's ALDS, and held the Red Sox to two runs over six innings when he saw them on June 2 in Houston, his only regular-season start against them.
"I think he's a future Hall of Famer," Hinch said. "I think he's someone that has done everything in the game, from being a big-time pitcher in the postseason to his personal struggles where people were writing him off as nearly ending his career to now being a Cy Young contender. It's been incredible to watch him grow and mature."
3. Most Valuable Players
The reigning AL MVP will be on the field Saturday, and the next one could be. Houston's Jose Altuve brought home the hardware last season, and though Bregman has been the Astros' MVP of 2018, this year's finalists will include Boston's Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. Those votes were cast at the end of the regular season, so the ALCS won't influence the outcome, but both players are more than capable of making a postseason impact.
"I think I'd just flip a coin or tell them rock-paper-scissors," Sale said, when asked whom he'd select as the MVP. "I don't know. They just both bring something to the game that it just separates them both from everyone else."
4. Martinez's Astros years
The Astros had little earthly reason to suspect that they had a budding MVP candidate on their roster in Martinez, who spent 2011-13 with the rebuilding franchise and batted .251 with a .687 OPS, averaging eight homers and 42 RBIs. Martinez had revamped his swing prior to Spring Training in '14 but was unable to show it given a lack of consistent playing time. The Astros' loss turned into gains for the Tigers, D-backs and now the Red Sox.
"My failures in Houston are what made me who I am," Martinez said. "I think it's given me that drive to keep working, because you never know what can happen. I learned a lot from Houston. There's really no animosity there. In a sense, they did me a favor by allowing me to leave and going to play on another team. If it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't be here right now."
5. Bullpen drama
Sale and Verlander won't do all the work, or will they? Once the bullpen gates open, can Cora keep the Midas touch? Nearly all of his decisions worked out in the ALDS against the Yankees, including stamping out New York's homer-happy lineup with a bullpen that most observers thought could be Boston's Achilles' heel.
"I was always comfortable with the bullpen," Cora said. "I knew we were going to have guys coming in in situations that they didn't pitch in the regular season. I knew coming into October we were going to be fine."
The Astros' bullpen has been strong of late, but it remains to be seen if those arms will be sharp, given their lengthy layoff following the ALDS win over the Indians. Several hurlers have thrown simulated games in the past few days, so Hinch said that Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton likely won't be needed in relief for Games 1 and 2.
"You can never have too many weapons," Hinch said. "You can never address every single part of dynamic lineups like we're about to face."
Bryan Hoch has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.