Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Oct. 8, 2018 – Source: Getty Images North America)
There are officially just four teams left in the 2018 season, and the Boston Red Sox are one of them. The 108-win Red Sox will take on the 103-win Houston Astros in a best-of-seven series for the right to advance to the World Series. These were the best two teams in baseball throughout the regular season, and they’re bound to produce a fantastic series. It all starts on Saturday with the ALCS Game One preview.
ALCS Game One Preview: Boston Red Sox vs Houston Astros
First Pitch: 8:09 PM
Television: TBS (check local listings)
Radio: WEEI (check local station)
Houston in a Glance
The reigning World Series champions might be even better in 2018 than they were in 2017, and that’s absolutely frightening. Houston’s offense was one of the best in the league, ranking sixth in runs, seventh in OPS, and seventh in on-base percentage. The offense has several dangerous players, but the entire roster centers around reigning MVP Jose Altuve. While he hasn’t played up to his ridiculous 2017 form, the small slugger still put up an impressive .315/.384/.449 slash line with a 134 wRC+.
Injuries limited Carlos Correa to just 110 games, but the star shortstop is back for the ALDS. In his abbreviated season, Correa posted a .239/.323/.405 slash line with a 101 wRC+. However, he has the potential to be significantly better than that, as evidenced by his 152 wRC+ in 2017. However, according to reports, Correa still has symptoms from his nagging back injury. He won’t be at 100%, so he might not be as dangerous as usual.
This offense is far deeper than just those two. George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Marwin Gonzalez all have the potential to change a game with a swing of the bat. Springer, in particular, is beginning to establish himself as a postseason legend. The Astros center fielder hit three home runs in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians and is on a torrid power pace. Dating back to 2017, Springer has hit seven homers in his last seven postseason games. In his postseason career, Springer is slashing an impressive .294/.374/.633 with a 1.007 OPS.
Your Starting Ace: Chris Sale
If there’s any pitcher in the world (not named Jacob DeGrom) who can stop this powerful offense, it’s Chris Sale. When he’s on his game, Chris Sale is arguably the best pitcher in the league, and he looked on his game in the ALDS.
Erasing any doubt about his health, Sale tossed 5.1 innings of two-run ball, striking out eight and walking just one. While it took him a while to get out of the first inning, Sale was completely unhittable up until the sixth, looking like his old self. His fastball velocity was in the mid-90’s and he looked like the Chris Sale we all know and love. Additionally, Sale pitched an inning of relief in Game Four against the Yankees, needing just 13 pitches to bridge the gap to Craig Kimbrel.
With the rust from missing a majority of the second half completely knocked off, Sale should go even deeper into his second start of the postseason. The more Chris Sale pitches, the better, as the ace is downright unhittable no matter how often batters see him.
Know Your Enemy: Justin Verlander
If pitching duels are your type of thing, then this is the game for you. The Houston Astros will send Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in baseball, to face off against Sale. When healthy, these two have the ability to completely shut down a lineup and were arguably the best pitchers in the American League this season (although Blake Snell might have something to say about that claim).
Verlander was his normal dominant self in 2018, finishing the year with a 2.52 ERA and a 2.78 FIP in 214 innings of work. He struck out an absurd 12.2 batters per nine innings while walking just 1.56 batters per nine. Verlander’s dominant season has him right at the top of the Cy Young race and, along with Sale, he could be the best pitcher left in the playoffs.
Verlander is a three-pitch player, with his most common offering being his fastball. After losing some velocity a few years back, the 35-year-old righty is back to blowing up the radar gun with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 miles per hour. Verlander complements his fastball with a devastating slider and curveball. Each pitch is an above-average MLB offering on its’ own, but together Verlander boasts one of the most unhittable pitch sets in baseball.
Player to Watch: Mookie Betts
George Springer would go here, but we already talked about him. Instead, let’s look at the Red Sox right fielder. Mookie Betts is coming off a phenomenal season, posting a .346/.438/.640 slash line with a 185 wRC+. That elite offensive performance, combined with fantastic baserunning and defense, has made Mookie the MVP frontrunner for the 2018 season.
However, Mookie has not been the same guy in the postseason. While his fielding and baserunning is as good as it’s ever been, his bat has been notably absent. In the ALDS against the Yankees, Betts posted a .188/.316/.250 slash line with an ugly 27 wRC+. That means that, for this four-game stretch, Betts was 83% worse than a league-average hitter.
Unfortunately, postseason struggles are nothing new for Mookie. Throughout his postseason career, Betts owns a .238/.333/.333 slash line with a 68 wRC+. Granted, we’re only talking about 11 games, so the sample size is still small. Still, it’s not ideal to see the teams’ best player underperform at this crucial a time.
As good as the 2018 New York Yankees were, they didn’t have the elite starting pitching of Houston. It should be harder for the offense to score runs this time around, and the Sox will need their MVP to step up in the biggest series of his life.
Just about every game in this series could go either way, but Game One looks to be in Boston’s favor. Chris Sale is slightly better than Justin Verlander and the Red Sox offense is slightly better than the Astros offense.
The Red Sox bullpen appears to have found a solid formula to bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel. If the starter can go six innings, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are both more than capable of handling an inning of work, with Barnes preferably facing the stronger part of the lineup. Should the starter not make it six innings, whichever starter in on the most rest can come out of the bullpen for an inning of work.
Having a starter come out of the pen shouldn’t be necessary, as Chris Sale is more than capable of tossing six innings. This should be a low-scoring affair, as elite pitching tends to win out over elite hitting. That said, the Red Sox should pull this one out, but only by the smallest of margins.
Final Prediction: Red Sox 3, Astros 2