It’s a rare treat when the best two teams in baseball meet in the playoffs, so this year’s American League Championship Series matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros is already shaping up to be an epic showdown.
Before Game 1 gets going, here are six storylines to watch in this year’s ALCS.
Red Sox revenge
Two members of the Red Sox will be looking to get one over on their old team. For manager Alex Cora, it may not exactly be revenge – he was, after all, an important part of A.J. Hinch’s coaching staff when the Astros won the World Series last year – but he would likely get extra pleasure from using what his mentor taught him to knock off the defending champs.
On the other hand, cold-blooded revenge may be on the mind of J.D. Martinez, otherwise known to Houston as the one who got away. Over three seasons with the Astros as a part-time contributor to some of the worst teams in franchise history, he put up a cumulative slash line of .251/.300/.387 with just 24 home runs. The Astros released him in spring training 2014 – at which time he immediately signed with the Detroit Tigers and turned into a superstar. A lot of time may have passed since then, but that may not necessarily heal the wound. Cutting Martinez remains one of the biggest mistakes in Astros history, and it could really come back to haunt them.
How healthy is Correa?
Carlos Correa hasn’t looked anything like himself this season, and the former first overall pick has been completely out of sorts since returning from the disabled list in August. On Wednesday, Correa revealed that his back issues, which sidelined him for nearly two months in the regular season, are causing him intense pain when he swings the bat.
The 24-year-old did hit a home run in the ALDS, but it was late in the Game 3 blowout and ultimately the only hit he recorded against the Cleveland Indians. Houston needs a lot more from its superstar shortstop on both sides of the ball in order to get by the Red Sox.
So who shows up? The Correa who slashed .333/.357/.556 in seven games against the New York Yankees last October, or the injured slugger who’s fighting through pain just to stand on the field? The answer could end up dictating who lifts the William Harridge Trophy.
Boston’s bullpen struggles are well known, and to the naked eye, this gives Houston a great advantage in later innings. Or does it?
On the Red Sox side, their relievers haven’t exactly excelled down the stretch. As a unit, they posted the sixth-highest ERA (4.84) in September, and questions have been raised about the effectiveness of Joe Kelly; even the normally reliable Craig Kimbrel struggled to close out the Yankees in Game 4. Cora likely doesn’t want to have to do what he did against New York and use some of his starters in relief – but the bullpen issues could force his hand, and potentially alter the series.
So yes, Houston has the overall edge in the battle of the bullpens thanks to performance and depth – except for one potentially thorny issue. The Red Sox know Astros closer Roberto Osuna from his years in the AL East with the Toronto Blue Jays, and his 5.28 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 29 innings against Boston are his worst numbers against any team he’s faced at least 10 times. He also blew one save against them earlier this year for the Blue Jays, and nearly coughed up a second one when the Astros visited Fenway in September. If these trends continue into the series, Houston could find itself with a major problem.
Speed vs. Maldonado
The Red Sox love to run. This year they stole 125 bases, the third-most in baseball, while being caught only 31 times. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. all stole over 15 bases, and Betts produced a 30-30 season.
That speed will face one of its biggest tests yet in Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, the reigning AL Gold Glove catcher. Maldonado, acquired from the Los Angeles Angels at the trade deadline, threw out an MLB-best 49 percent of runners this season. He’ll present a tremendous challenge for Boston, and create a fun subplot to watch when the Sox get runners on base. How long will Cora wait to test the mettle of Maldonado?
For the record, Benintendi and Rafael Devers each stole one off Maldonado this year, but he also caught Benintendi once.
Is the Price right?
The October spotlight is on David Price, and once again he’ll have to shake off a million so-called demons that are following him everywhere in the playoffs.
Price’s start in the ALDS was nothing short of a disaster, and in Game 2, he will be the story once again. Can he finally produce when it matters most?
Bregman vs. Sale, Part II
One year ago, Alex Bregman gave Chris Sale a rude welcome to October. Bregman’s homer in the first inning of Game 1 in the ALDS opened the floodgates as the Astros thrashed Sale in his first playoff start. A few days later in Game 4, Bregman tagged Sale the reliever for a game-tying solo shot in the eighth inning that ultimately won Houston the series.
And so here we are again. Sale and Bregman will square off one more time in Game 1 of the ALCS, each of them the key to their team’s potential success. It also pits AL MVP candidate vs. AL Cy Young candidate in a one-on-one matchup that should have baseball fans of all stripes salivating for more.