By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Maybe a series against the Astros will be enough to quiet the critics who are saying the Red Sox haven’t played anyone good yet this season.

The best team in baseball opens up a big four-game set against the defending World Series champs on Thursday night. Alex Cora returns to Houston (where he’ll pick up his World Series ring) and is bringing his 39-win Red Sox with him for a rematch of last season’s ALDS. It’s Boston’s biggest test of the season so far, and a series win or split may even silence some of those who aren’t impressed with their hot start. There will be no sugar-coating this series against the 35-22 Astros.

Boston’s potent offense will look to continue their power surge against Astros pitching, which is the best staff in baseball by miles. Houston is sporting an absurd 2.68 ERA as a staff, allowing just 153 earned runs over their first 57 games. The next-best team ERA goes to the Washington Nationals at 3.21, but they don’t have to deal with a DH on a nightly basis. The Red Sox are second in the AL in ERA with a respectable 3.56.

Houston just dropped two of three to the Yankees in New York, while Boston has won nine of their last 11. Here’s a look at the pitching matchups in an extremely important set for both teams.

Thursday, 8:10pm

Drew Pomeranz (1-2, 6.75 ERA) vs. Lance McCullers Jr. (6-3, 3.98 ERA)

Pomeranz is looking to bounce back from a tough three-game stretch where he’s allowed 13 earned runs in 11.1 innings. He’s coming off his worst outing of the season, surrendering five runs in just 3.1 innings last Saturday against the Braves.

He had success against Houston last season going 1-0 with a 1.46 ERA in his two starts, allowing just two earned runs over 12.1 innings. He’s had a tough time getting Jose Altuve out though (who hasn’t?), with the Astros second baseman a career 7-for-17 against the Boston lefty. George Springer (who leads Houston with 11 homers this season) is just 1-for-8 in his career against Pomeranz, but has worked eight walks.

McCullers is also coming off a bad outing where he allowed seven runs on six hits (including three homers) over 4.1 innings in a loss to the Cleveland Indians. Mookie Betts (4-for-9, 2 doubles) and Xander Bogaerts (4-for-12, 2 doubles) have had success against the Houston righty in their careers.

Friday, 8:10pm

Chris Sale (5-2, 2.76 ERA) vs. Gerrit Cole (5-1, 2.05 ERA)

What a doozy of a pitching matchup we get on Friday night.

Sale is going to be locked as he tries to bounce back from his worst outing of the season, when he allowed six runs on five hits and three walks in just 4.1 innings in a loss to the Braves on Sunday. Altuve has put up big numbers against Sale, with eight hits in 21 at-bats, including a double and a homer. But the lefty has gotten the best of Houston’s other hitters, holding the other Astros batters he’s faced to a .181 average (12-for-66) with 18 punchouts.

The Red Sox don’t have too much experience against Cole, but Andrew Benintendi took him deep for a three-run homer on Opening Day last season while he was with Pittsburgh. Cole has held opponents to two or fewer runs in eight of his 11 starts this season, but he has been giving up homers, surrendering seven overall and four in his last three starts.

Saturday, 7:15pm

David Price (5-4, 4.04 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (7-2, 1.11 ERA)

Price has won three of his last four starts, but lasted just five innings against the Blue Jays on Monday. He allowed just two runs and picked up the win, but walked four and threw just 57 of his 95 pitches for strikes. He can’t be as soft against the Astros this weekend.

Altuve (him again) is 7-for-19 in his career against Price. But the lefty has gotten the best of Springer, who has struck out 10 times in his 18 at-bats against him.

Verlander has been dealing this season, allowing one run or fewer in each of his last six starts and 10 of 12 overall. He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his starts this season. This will be Boston’s biggest test of the weekend, as no current Red Sox player has homered against Verlander. Mitch Moreland has had success against the right in the past, going 10-for-29 with six doubles (he’s also struck out 10 times against Verlander).

Sunday, 7:35pm

Rick Porcello (7-2, 3.65 ERA) vs. Charlie Morton (7-0, 2.26 ERA)

Porcello is looking to turn the page on a difficult May, sporting a 5.32 ERA for the month. He didn’t have much fun pitching against the Astros last season, allowing seven earned runs off 10 hits (including a pair of homers) in six innings during the regular season. He lasted just three innings in his Game 4 start against Houston in the ALDS, giving up two runs off five hits.

Morton has a perfect record and a low ERA, but he has been giving up homers this season, allowing nine in 67.2 innings pitched.


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