ALCS Preview: Astros-Red Sox

They’re the best two teams in baseball. You have the American League’s most productive offense in Boston and its stingiest pitching staff in Houston. Each franchise has a World Series title within the last five years that was won for a city dealing with tragedy (The Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 and Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year). The winner of this ALCS will be the favorite to win it all again in the Fall Classic. Here’s a few thoughts on the showdown between the Astros and Red Sox that starts Saturday night in the Fens.

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Both offenses are stacked with name players, but the biggest name is Mookie Betts, the Red Sox rightfielder and favorite to win the American League MVP. Betts is a positively electric player—a .438 on-base percentage and .640 slugging percentage. 32 home runs and 30 stolen bases. 129 runs scored. And the numbers don’t even tell the whole story—they don’t talk about his rangy defense in rightfield and his positive spirit that seems to shine through this team.

But in October, the numbers tell a story that is, while not damning, at least concerning. Mookie has three postseason series under his belt over the past three years. He’s yet to put a stamp on any of them. The batting average is .238 and he’s still looking for his first playoff home run. That’s not to say all is lost—to his credit, Betts hasn’t tried to compensate by overswinging and continues to take his walks. He’s got a .333 on-base percentage in the postseason and that’s at least manageable. But the most recent series against the Yankees was his worst (3-for-16) and at some point at this time of year, stars have to be be stars.

On the flip side for Boston, leftfielder Andrew Benintendi has been a playoff producer. He homered in his first postseason at-bat two years ago in Cleveland and has steadily done the job ever since, to the tune of .364 OBP/.447 slugging playoff stat line. Benintendi, along with Betts, are responsible for setting the table for J. D. Martinez, coming off a great showing against the Yankees and this Boston offense must hum if there’s to be a pennant celebration.

Houston’s key player to watch is shortstop Carlos Correa. This has been a difficult year for the immensely talented 23-year-old who already seems like a grizzled veteran. Correa was limited to 110 games in the regular season and the final stat line of .323/.405 was by far his worst since coming to the majors at the age of 20.

But if the question is not who was the best this past regular season, but who is likely to succeed over the next week and a half or so, Correa’s overall body of work gives Astros fans reason for optimism. His career stat line is still a stellar .356/.477, even with this year’s struggles incorporated in. And he’s excelled in the playoffs with eight home runs highlighting his performances in both 2015 and last year during the championship run. Correa didn’t get going in the Division Series sweep against Cleveland until a late home run contributed to the Game 3 blowout. If that was a sign of things to come, the Astros offense will be a match for the potent Red Sox attack.

The second notable player for Houston is Alex Bregman. He was outstanding when these same two teams met in the Division Series, including a critical home run late in Houston’s Game 4 clinching win. He’s been a power machine in October generally, with eight home runs in 27 at-bats. He was locked in against Cleveland, going 5-for-14 with a couple homers. The only negative is that the postseason batting average is only .247 and the OBP a modest .326. It will be interesting to see how Boston pitching handles him and if Bregman stays patient.

There’s ultimately a reason why Houston is a (-140) betting favorite in Las Vegas to win this series and it can be seen in the pitching staffs. The Astros’ league-best ERA alone would suffice to tell the story, but the smaller nuances in the picture make the advantage even stronger.

Six starting pitchers have the potential to overshadow this series—Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Kuechel for Houston, alongside Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello for Boston. The problem for the Red Sox? Price overshadows the ALCS in a highly negative way. No one here in New England is remotely confident when he pitches.

Price will go in Game 2, which would likely set him up to pitch again in Game 6. Even though the Red Sox have homefield advantage, if this team comes home trailing the series 3-2 with Price on the mound, hopelessness will pervade the region.

The bullpen further favors Houston. Their relief corps is deeper to begin with and Boston closer Craig Kimbrel is coming off an extremely skittish showing against the Yankees, in which he nearly took his place in Red Sox infamy along with Bill Buckner before surviving a Game 4 meltdown.

It’s the pitching that decides winners in the postseason and that’s why, in spite of Boston’s great regular season record and their overall impressive showing in the Division Series, Houston still has to be the pick here and I think decisively. The Astros wrap it up at home in five games.