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Astros, Dodgers flex their muscles at right time

October 8, 2018

The Astros started the day by collecting 13 hits, including a pair of George Springer home runs. George Springer? You mean that George Springer? Just mentioning his name surely brings a smile to lots of baseball fans' faces.• ALCS Game 1: Saturday, 8:09 p.m. ET on TBSLast fall, in a

The Astros started the day by collecting 13 hits, including a pair of George Springer home runs. George Springer? You mean that George Springer? Just mentioning his name surely brings a smile to lots of baseball fans' faces.
ALCS Game 1: Saturday, 8:09 p.m. ET on TBS
Last fall, in a World Series that was about as entertaining as almost any that has ever been played, Springer was the biggest star in an instant classic delivered by the Astros and Dodgers.So there they were, Springer and the Astros, making a statement about themselves in this encore season Monday afternoon by finishing off a three-game American League Division Series sweep of the Indians with an 11-3 victory at Progressive Field.

Hours later, the Dodgers flexed some muscle of their own with a 6-2 elimination of the Braves in Game 4 of a National League Division Series at SunTrust Field. Like the Astros, the Dodgers are playing their best at the right time.They homered eight times in the NLDS, got dominant starts from Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw and near perfect bullpen work to advance to the NL Championship Series against the Brewers.
So as popular as it'll be to pick the Brewers or Red Sox or Yankees, the Astros and Dodgers reminded us on Monday that these are two very good teams, two teams with talent up and down the roster and two teams with lots of confidence and a touch of swagger.
:: ALCS schedule and results ::
Astros manager AJ Hinch could have been speaking for his buddy, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, on Sunday when he was asked why the Astros had played so well on the road.
"Because we're good," he said.
Sums it up, doesn't it?
"Not to be cocky about it," Hinch added, "but we're a good team. We play well at home, too. We had a couple road trips where we were pretty hot. We had an undefeated road trip. So we bunched the wins together quite a bit."
In the end, both these teams are what lots of us thought they'd be. The Astros are different than the team that won Game 7 of the World Series. Their pitching is way better, especially a bullpen that was baseball's best in 2018.
They scored 99 fewer runs, but they bumped their regular-season win total from 101 games to 103. Unlike 2017 when they had the AL West all but wrapped up by the All-Star Break, the Astros were pushed down the stretch by the A's and didn't clinch the division until the 157th game of the season.

But they answered every challenge, going 28-9 down the stretch, and against the Indians, some of their biggest offensive pieces -- Springer, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, etc. -- were at their best. All in all, the Astros could hardly be in a better place as they await the winner of the Red Sox-Yankees ALDS and the start of the AL Championship Series on Saturday.
NLCS Game 1: Friday, 8:09 p.m. ET on FS1
:: NLCS schedule and results ::
As for the Dodgers, it was a far different journey to their sixth straight NL West championship and third straight NLCS appearance. They were 16-26 and 8 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West on May 16.
That they held it together and kept pushing forward is a tribute to Roberts and to the core of leadership inside their clubhouse. They went 76-45 after that slow start with unheralded Player Page for Max Muncy becoming a key part of the lineup. When Orioles shortstop Manny Machado was added at the Trade Deadline, the Dodgers suddenly had the look of a championship team.
What makes them so dangerous is that the pitching -- Ryu and Kershaw in the rotation and a deep bullpen -- is as good as it has been during this run of division titles. With the NLCS beginning Friday in Milwaukee, the Dodgers in plenty of ways -- power, pitching depth, confidence -- are mirror images of the Brewers.
Those dark horse World Series picks are fun to make, and it's easy to see another team winning the World Series.
But perhaps the thing that Monday did was remind us that the Astros and Dodgers should not be underestimated.

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.