The Houston Astros see this as their time. Funny thing is, so do the Cleveland Indians. And that's why we have our first big series of the 2017 season when these two teams open a three-game set at Progressive Field on Tuesday.This could be the first of many Astros-Indians games
The Houston Astros see this as their time. Funny thing is, so do the Cleveland Indians. And that's why we have our first big series of the 2017 season when these two teams open a three-game set at Progressive Field on Tuesday.
This could be the first of many Astros-Indians games this year, since both are consensus favorites to win their division and both appear capable of playing deep into October.
First, a little recent history. The Indians did something really special last fall. OK, it wasn't quite as special as what the Chicago Cubs did, but still. The Tribe won hearts and minds, and that's a big deal.
Who remembers the team that didn't win the World Series? Plenty of people remember the Indians. To watch them play was to fall in love with their grit and fearlessness.
How they got there was a remarkable story as well. The Indians lost their best player, outfielder Michael Brantley, in early May. They lost two of their three best starting pitchers, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, in September.
Finally, as the postseason opened, one of their remaining starting pitchers, Trevor Bauer, mangled a finger on his pitching hand while repairing a drone. (Bauer returned to make two starts in the World Series, but he didn't get through five innings either time. Salazar had two brief relief appearances in the World Series.)
Despite the adversity, the Indians won the American League Central and eliminated the Red Sox and Blue Jays on their way to their first World Series in 19 years.
Corey Kluber reminded the world that he's one of the true aces in the game, and Andrew Miller emerged as a superstar reliever. Manager Terry Francona continued to build a Hall of Fame resume.
Only one team hoists a trophy at the end of a World Series, but the Indians and Cubs both did themselves proud. In the end, it felt like an entire sport won.
On day one of Spring Training, Cleveland looked like the AL's best team with Brantley, Salazar and Carrasco all back in uniform. The Indians also added an impact bat by signing free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who averaged 39 home runs in the past four seasons with the Blue Jays.
Nothing that has happened so far has changed the narrative. The Indians arrive at this series 10-8 and tied with the Tigers atop the AL Central.
The Astros have a story, too. Two years ago, they made a surprise run to the postseason and beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game before forcing the Royals to a deciding Game 5 of an AL Division Series.
After a disappointing 2016, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow aggressively upgraded his roster by adding catcher Brian McCann, pitcher Charlie Morton and outfielders Norichika Aoki, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran.
All the Astros needed was for their top two starting pitchers, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, to bounce back from injuries. So far, both have. Houston has won seven of their last eight starts on its way to a 13-6 start. Keuchel will pitch on Tuesday, McCullers on Wednesday.
So how do these two teams stack up against one another? Let's take a look:
A.J. Hinch has done a phenomenal job since taking over the Astros two years ago. He manages his bullpen competently and has great relationships with his players. But the Indians have a guy who has won the World Series twice (with the Red Sox) and is 38-23 in the postseason. In other words, any conversation about the best managers ever must include Francona.
Indians: 4.81 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 106 2/3 innings
Astros: 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 109 1/3 innnings
Few teams have a front two as good as Keuchel and McCullers. However, No. 3 starter Collin McHugh is sidelined with a sore shoulder, and the other three have a combined 5.18 ERA. As for Cleveland, Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar could be a dominant October rotation if they're all healthy. Only San Francisco's starters have a higher ERA this season.
Astros: 2.66 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, .555 OPS
Indians: 2.92 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, .656 OPS
Both are good. The Indians are so good with Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw in the late innings that Francona can use Miller for high-leverage or late-inning situations. The Astros have a tremendous weapon in second-year right-hander Chris Devenski. Houston closer Ken Giles has swing-and-miss stuff, but he has also had a couple of tough games. Francona and Hinch both manage their bullpens smartly.
Astros: 4.3 runs per game, .759 OPS, 24 home runs
Indians: 4.8 runs per game, .751 OPS, 22 home runs
Houston is averaging just 4.3 runs per game despite one of the deepest lineups in the Majors. Shortstop Carlos Correa's .197 batting average isn't yet a concern. Cleveland has been wildly inconsistent, scoring three runs or fewer in nine games but also scoring at least seven runs in five games. Offense shouldn't be a concern for either team.
Young superstar shortstop
Correa: .197 batting average, 2 home runs, .581 OPS, 0.1 WAR
Francisco Lindor: .315 batting average, 5 home runs, .990 OPS, 0.8 WAR
The Astros and Indians have two of the players who should be faces of the game for the next decade or so. Correa is off to a slow start, but he began the season with a solid .829 career OPS. Lindor is off to a great start, swinging a hot bat and showing athleticism that'll take your breath away.
Fresh off a 20-game run to the World Series, Cleveland knows exactly what it takes to excel in October, and the Tribe might be motivated to return and finish the deal the way the Royals did two years ago after a disappointing World Series loss. The Astros tasted playoff baseball two years ago, but let a 2-1 series advantage slip away against the Royals.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice.