BOSTON -- The Astros’ dramatic beginning to the American League Championship Series all of a sudden feels like ages ago after Boston has emphatically bounced back with yet another slugfest in a 12-3 loss in Game 3 on Monday.
Houston finds itself needing to win at least one of these next two games at Fenway Park in order to keep its season alive and push this series back to Minute Maid Park. The first effort to do so will be behind Zack Greinke, who has been tabbed for Game 4 on Tuesday.
Aside from receiving an effective outing from the veteran, which is obvious -- and Cristian Javier, who will almost certainly make an appearance -- here are three keys for the Astros to get back into the ALCS:
1) Get going early
Sure, it’s obvious that scoring early would help the Astros’ chances. But their struggles in the opening innings of these playoffs have become particularly exacerbated given that it’s been in these moments that the Red Sox have largely done their most damage.
Innings 1-3, (ALCS vs. playoffs total)
BOS: 1.327 OPS | 1.215 OPS
HOU: .462 OPS | .683 OPS
The Astros are 10-31 (.244 winning percentage) this season when trailing after three innings, and it’s worth noting that 1) that mark is above league average (.235), and 2) they had a comeback after the third inning of their win in Game 1, thanks to home run heroics from Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.
Speaking of, those two have been all but silent since that late-innings magic, going a combined 1-for-9 in each of the two games since. Alex Bregman has also had a quiet series, going 2-for-12 with zero RBIs.
Playing from behind, especially with such a wide deficit, creates a different brand of offense. It leads to pressure and urgency on each pitch.
“It does put pressure on your offense, and then what it does for the other team, the other team has a sense of relaxation and the pitcher feels that he just needs to throw strikes,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “When that happens, a relaxed pitcher can throw strikes. There's no pressure on him other than to throw strikes. He’s not worried about us hitting the ball out of the ballpark.”
2) Get into Boston’s bullpen early
Forcing manager Alex Cora to turn to his relief corps would go far beyond giving the Red Sox a taste of their own medicine. Because Cora deploys his pitching staff so aggressively, openly saying before this series that he would use his starters in high-leverage relief, it would behoove Houston to force him to do so.
Eduardo Rodriguez (Monday’s starter) and Nick Pivetta (Tuesday’s starter) were both available for such situations in Games 1 and 2, but Cora never needed them. Imagine if he did -- who would he have turned to as the series shifted back to Fenway? Tanner Houck? A full-blown bullpen game?
These things are easier said than done, but because Cora rolls the dice in such a drastic risk-versus-reward way at this time of year, his pitching staff could be vulnerable -- if Houston can exploit it earlier.
“They hit three grand slams in two games,” Baker said. “We’ve got to come out tomorrow, hold them and then score ourselves early.”
3) Castro over Maldonado?
Martín Maldonado went 0-for-2 on Monday and is now 1-for-21 this postseason. He was pulled in the seventh inning of Game 2 for Jason Castro, which was more a product of the game being well out of reach. But it also could foreshadow how Baker handles the catching situation the next two days -- and beyond.
Given the way Boston is hitting (and pitching), and that Houston’s pitching staff is so depleted, it’s clear that the Astros are going to need to slug their way back into this series. And given the way Maldonado is hitting, shaking things up could be necessary.
Castro might’ve been considered for Game 3 against Rodriguez, though his .561 OPS this year against lefties illustrates why that would’ve been a poor pocket to install him. With Boston likely starting Pivetta in Game 4, Castro -- who this season had a .917 OPS and seven homers against righties -- could be the stronger option. Castro caught Greinke in three games this season for 18 total innings.
Maldonado has been so valuable to Houston’s pitching staff, and with its arms in a vulnerable state, steering from him would be a risk. But the opportunity cost could be some much-needed offense.