By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Let’s be honest: The Astros should beat the Red Sox.
We’re talking about a 101-win team, one that boasted easily the major leagues’ best offense (their .823 team OPS is 35 points higher than the second-best team, the Indians). They also finished with the third-best starters’ ERA at 4.03 – three points above the Red Sox’ 4.06 – and added Justin Verlander at the waiver trade deadline. The former Tigers ace went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in September for his new team. Of course, they have home field advantage.
But that doesn’t mean that the Red Sox should just be written off, like many “experts” may claim before the start of the American League Division Series on Thursday. Any number of unexpected things can happen in playoff baseball. Who took the Indians seriously before they rolled through the American League all the way to extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series last season? The Red Sox have plenty of talent in their own right, and that’s generally why they have at least a marginal chance of pulling off the upset.
Here are some reasons why the Red Sox could keep the up-and-coming Astros out of the World Series for another year:
The Astros have struggled against Chris Sale
There’s one thing that absolutely, positively needs to happen for the Red Sox to even have a chance of beating the Astros. Chris Sale needs to pitch like Chris Sale, for at least Game 1. Sale has never pitched in the postseason and was inconsistent after the All-Star break, but he’s the kind of player you should feel confident in to elevate his game on a bigger stage.
More importantly, most of the Astros have historically performed poorly against Sale. Jose Altuve has had success (8-for-21), but the rest? Carlos Correa, George Springer, Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, Marwin Gonzalez, and Cameron Maybin are a combined 12-for-62 (.194) with only three home runs and 18 strikeouts. Third baseman Alex Bregman has never faced him. The Astros also weren’t particularly great against lefties in general down the stretch, batting just .259 (ninth in the AL) against southpaws in September.
To be fair, the Red Sox are pretty much just as bad against Verlander. Besides Mitch Moreland (10-for-29), the rest of the Red Sox core has been quite bad. Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Hanley Ramirez are a combined 12-for-82 (.146) in their careers against the Astros righty. But if the Red Sox want to have a sniff of winning this series, it starts with slowing down the Astros lineup. Sale at least gives you plenty of hope that he can do that.
The Red Sox have the advantage in the bullpen
You may not feel confident in the Red Sox’ relievers by just looking at names on a sheet, but their 3.15 bullpen ERA ranked second in the AL. The Astros, meanwhile, finished 10th in the league with a 4.27 ERA out of the ‘pen.
The Red Sox have the better closer, mainly because Craig Kimbrel is better than everyone’s closer. The Astros’ Ken Giles is a fine reliever in his own right, as he put together a strong year with 34 saves and a 2.30 ERA – but he’s no Kimbrel. Houston’s primary eighth-inning man, Luke Gregerson, could have been comparable to Addison Reed (0.68 ERA in 13.1 innings since Sept. 3). But Gregerson got bombed in September, posting a 7.71 ERA in 9.1 innings. Betts went deep off him on Sept. 30 at Fenway Park.
But the biggest advantage for the Red Sox bullpen, believe it or not, could come from lefty David Price. He has been ridiculous since assuming a key middle relief role, going 8.2 innings and allowing no runs, three hits, two walks, and striking out 13. If he can be a similar weapon in the playoffs – he has done it before as a reliever – he could make a massive difference in the middle or near the end of these games.
The Astros better break things open early and often, because if the series comes down to how the bullpens perform, the scales could tip in the Red Sox’ favor.
The Astros can’t hold runners
Get ready for a lot more of the Red Sox’ patented Aggressive Baserunning™ in this series, because the Astros stink at keeping runners at bay. Houston allowed a whopping 102 stolen bases in the regular season, by far the most of all four remaining AL playoff teams (the Red Sox allowed 61). Astros catchers threw out just 12.07 percent of runners, compared to 39 percent for the Red Sox. So it’s less likely that you’ll see the Sox run into outs against the Astros as often as they did against other teams.
This could especially become a factor if the games are tight in the late innings, when moving from first to second would make all the difference in the world. The Sox’ baserunning against the Astros defense is a matchup to watch closely, and it has a chance to have a bigger impact on the series than you may expect.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.