An enticing matchup between the last two American League champions gets underway Friday in Houston when the Astros play host to the Indians in Game 1 of a star-studded AL Division Series.
The best-of-five series features two dominant pitching rotations, led by former Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel of the Astros and Corey Kluber of the Indians. The Astros have the best bullpen in the game, but it's on offense where the stars will shine.
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The defending champion Astros, who set a club record with 103 wins, have a deep lineup that features All-Stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and former All-Star Carlos Correa. The Indians counter with All-Stars Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley and former MVP Josh Donaldson.
What do the starting lineups look like?
Indians: The top of the Tribe's lineup is fueled by two of the most dynamic hitters in the game in Lindor and Ramirez. The switch-hitting duo hits for power and can leg out extra-base hits and steal bases. The late-season acquisition of Donaldson lengthens out a lineup that finished first in MLB in steals (135), third in runs (818) and fourth in weighted on-base average (.330).
1. Francisco Lindor, SS
2. Michael Brantley, LF
3. Jose Ramirez, 2B
4. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
5. Josh Donaldson, 3B
6. Yonder Alonso, 1B
7. Melky Cabrera, RF
8. Yan Gomes, C
9. Jason Kipnis, CF
Astros: There are dangerous hitters throughout Houston's lineup, though almost every batter took a step backward this year with the exceptional of Bregman and White. If Correa is fully over the back ailment that hampered him in the second half, that would be a boon for the Astros.
1. George Springer, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Alex Bregman, 3B
4. Yuli Gurriel, 1B
5. Marwin Gonzalez, LF
6. Carlos Correa, SS
7. Tyler White, DH
8. Josh Reddick, RF
9. Martin Maldonado, C
Who are the starting pitchers?
Indians: Coming off his second career AL Cy Young Award, Kluber (20-7, 2.89 ERA) turned in another strong season for the Tribe. The ace topped 200 innings and 200 strikeouts for the fifth consecutive season, becoming the first pitcher in Indians history to accomplish that type of streak.
Hitters adopted a more aggressive approach this season against Kluber, who adjusted by leaning more on his sinker and cutter than a year ago. His strikeout rate dropped (9.3 K/9 in 2018 vs. 11.7 K/9 in '17), but Kluber led the AL in walk rate (1.4 BB/9) and was happy with inducing weak contact in early-count situations. In two starts vs. Houston this year, Kluber has given up two runs with 17 strikeouts and no walks in 13 1/3 innings.
Astros: Veteran right-hander Verlander (16-9, 2.52 ERA) had one of the best seasons of his career at 35 years old, with a career-high 290 strikeouts and 0.90 WHIP in 34 starts. The Astros wouldn't have won the World Series if not for last August's trade for Verlander, who had a 2.21 ERA in six playoff outings '17 and was the Most Valuable Player of the ALCS against the Yankees.
Verlander didn't face the Indians this year, but has tons of experience against them while he was with the Tigers. He has 11 more losses in his career against the Indians than another team, going 20-24 with a 4.71 ERA.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Indians: Cleveland has shown in recent postseason games that it is not afraid of having a quick hook with its starter and leveraging the late-inning arms earlier in games. Expect the trio of Andrew Miller, Brad Hand and Cody Allen to get the bulk of the work, with Oliver Perez, Adam Cimber and Dan Otero filling speciality roles.
The Indians have added a wrinkle into their 2018 October bullpen, too. For the early games, righty Trevor Bauer -- a front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award before a stress fracture in his right fibula cost him six weeks in the second half -- will be available as a multi-inning leverage arm in the early games of the ALDS.
Astros: The Astros have rebuilt their bullpen from last year, when they used starters in key relief spots throughout the playoffs. The makeover started in December when they signed veteran right-handers Hector Rondon and Joe Smith and continued into July in trades to acquire former All-Star closer Roberto Osuna and another veteran righty, Thomas Pressly.
The Astros finished the regular season with a bullpen that led the Major Leagues in ERA (3.03), batting average against (.214), WHIP (1.06) and fewest walks (137). Another key development was the re-emergence of lefty Tony Sipp, who was a legitimate weapon following a pair of poor seasons.
Any injuries of note?
Indians: Miller dealt with three DL stints this season, but finally looked like himself in a solid September. Gomes sustained a laceration in his right thumb on Saturday, but is expected to be fine for the ALDS. Bauer is healthy, but he has not thrown more than 60 pitches in a game since early August. Corner outfielder Brandon Guyer is dealing with a minor right shoulder issue, but is cleared to play.
Astros: The Astros appear to be as healthy as they can be heading into the playoffs. There were questions about pitchers Lance McCullers (elbow) and Charlie Morton (shoulder), but they showed enough in the final days of the regular season to give the team optimism that they were good to go. Same with Correa, who hasn't been himself since going on the DL with a back issue in August. He homered and doubled Saturday in Baltimore, a sign his injury might be behind him.
Who is hot and who is not?
Indians: Ramirez was a clear-cut AL MVP candidate through July, but labored at the plate over the final two months. Dating back to Aug. 19, when he last had a .300 average, the slugger has hit .167 with a .583 OPS. On the other side of the coin, Donaldson hit .280/.400/.520 with a 149 wRC+ in September. Gomes (141 wRC+) and Brantley (140 wRC+) also had strong September performances.
Astros: Verlander went 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in five starts in September. Offensively, many of Houston's hitters were struggling entering the playoffs. In the team's final seven games, Altuve was 5-for-19, Bregman was 4-for-18, Correa was 3-for-12, Gattis was 1-for-14, Kemp was 1-for-14, Gonzalez was 2-for-15 and Springer was 3-for-12. Reddick (5-for-17) and Gurriel (7-for-19) were trending up.
Anything else fans might want to know?
The Astros are trying to become the first team to defend a World Series title since the 1999 Yankees. … This is the Astros' 12th postseason appearance. They're 35-45 all-time in the playoffs, including 17-8 at Minute Maid Park. They were 8-1 at home in the playoff last year, with the only loss coming in Game 4 of the World Series.
In order to accommodate Donaldson's arrival in August, Ramirez moved off third and took over at second. That prompted Kipnis to shift from second to center. Kipnis has looked fine in center, while Ramirez has been shaky at times at his new spot on the infield. … This is the fourth postseason appearance for the Tribe in six years under manager Terry Francona. Cleveland has gone 0-6 in close-out games in the playoffs, dating back to the 2016 World Series.