By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Advancing to the ALCS is great news for the Boston Red Sox. Having to face the Houston Astros? Well, not so much.

The defending champions put forth a frightening display in their three-game dismantling of the Cleveland Indians last week. Seriously — it was at times difficult to watch.

In Game 1, they chased two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in the fifth inning after tagging him for four runs (including three homers) en route to a 7-2 win. Justin Verlander held the Indians hitless through five innings, but he was pulled with one out in the sixth. Two runs came around to score and were charged to him, but the Houston bullpen allowed just one base runner over 3.2 innings to close out the victory. (The two runs scored on a wild pitch by Ryan Pressly and a fielder’s choice.)

The Indians held a lead in Game 2, thanks to a Francisco Lindor solo homer in the third, but that would be the lone blemish for Gerrit Cole, who allowed the one run on three hits with no walks while striking out 12 batters over his seven innings of work. The Astros won the game with a two-RBI double from Marwin Gonzalez off Andrew Miller in the sixth, and then a solo homer from Alex Bregman off Trevor Bauer in the seventh. Pressly and Roberto Osuna allowed one base runner apiece in closing out the victory.

And in Game 3, the Indians once again took a 1-0 lead in the third, and then regained a one-run lead in the fifth. Then the Astros went completely nuts, scoring two runs in the seventh before plating six runs in the eighth. They’d score one more in the ninth for good measure, winning in a drama-free 11-3 Game 3.

In total in that series, the Astros batted .327 with a 1.037 OPS. Both marks were by far the best among ALDS participants. Their starting pitchers went 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA, with 21 combined strikeouts and just three walks. The Houston bullpen allowed just one run in 9.2 innings for a 0.93 ERA. After hitting .259 with an OPS .766, the Indians hit just .144 with a miserable .418 OPS against Houston pitching.

Clearly, the Astros are no joke. For the Red Sox to stand toe-to-toe with the defending champs, let alone win the series, is going to take quite a bit. And it starts with these items.

1. Mookie Betts Must Be Better

Mookie Betts (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Mookie Betts is the presumed American League MVP. He had a fantastic season.

But he did not have a good ALDS, and that’s a continuation of his postseason performance thus far in the majors.

Against New York, Betts went 3-for-16 (.188) with one double, three walks (two were intentional) and four strikeouts. His OPS was .566.

While it’s an extremely small sample, Betts’ postseason career (11 games) has not been good. He owns a .238 batting average and a .667 OPS, with no homers and just four extra-base hits. For a career .303 hitter with an .888 regular-season OPS, that’s a significant drop-off.

The Red Sox were obviously able to get past the Yankees despite Betts going 2-for-13 in Games 2-4. But they likely won’t be so fortunate against a team as good as the Astros. The Red Sox will need their best players to be at their best. That starts with the leadoff man.

2. Craig Kimbrel’s Got Some Faith To Restore

Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel takes a moment during a wild ninth inning in Game 4 of the ALDS against the New York Yankees. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The bottom line shows that Kimbrel recorded two saves in Boston’s three wins in the ALDS. Seems like he did his job. But of course, anyone who witnessed the spectacle at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night knows that Boston’s closer had some issues. And then some.

Really, we can put aside the homer Kimbrel allowed in Game 1 for the time being. Yes, his curveball caught slightly too much of the plate, but that home run was more about Aaron Judge’s freakish strength than it was Kimbrel serving up a meatball. And Kimbrel rebounced nicely by striking out the next three batters to close out the win. Game 1 was fine.

But Game 4? Game 4 was a disaster. Kimbrel could not locate his breaking ball to save his life. Then he yanked a few fastballs for good measure. He walked two batters, hit another batter in the foot, was gifted a strikeout (on a putrid at-bat by Giancarlo Stanton), he missed giving up a walk-off grand slam to Gary Sanchez by about 7 feet, and he escaped the inning only thanks to an outstanding defensive effort by Eduardo Nunez and Steve Pearce.

“Shaky” wouldn’t even begin to describe that outing.

Afterwards, Kimbrel didn’t seem fazed, saying the baseballs might have been a little slick. But he knows something was off. He was extraordinarily lucky to get out of that mess in the Bronx without losing the game, and one would figure that the results in the ALCS will be a bit different if he walks that tightrope vs. Houston.

3. Chris Sale Will Have To Dig Deep

Chris Sale (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

From the start of May through the end of June, Chris Sale was a near-guarantee to go at least seven innings every start. He averaged 6.2 innings per start during that stretch, lasting seven or more in nine of 14 starts from May 1-July 11. Since his DL stints, though, Sale has not exactly been able to go long. He pitched 12 innings total in his four tune-up starts to end the regular season, and he was pulled after 5.1 in Game 1 against the Yankees.

Boston was able to survive that Game 1, despite a shaky bullpen performance (five hits, three walks, two runs in 3.2 innings). But considering Sale will be opposed by Justin Verlander, chances are the Red Sox will need Sale to tap back into his early-season aptitude for lasting seven-plus innings.

Sale’s relief appearance in Game 4 was a positive sign for this to be a realistic expectation. He told Alex Cora he could pitch in relief on just three days rest, and he said that even if there were a Game 5 on Thursday, he’d be ready to start that game. Obviously the Red Sox were extraordinarily careful in handling Chris Sale’s workload through August and September. Presumably, all of that work and care was taken to set him up to be able to let loose on this stage. The Red Sox are going to need it.

4. Defense Must Remain Sharp

Rafael Devers (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)

What’s gone somewhat overlooked in the dramatic Game 4 victory in New York was just how soundly Boston played in the field. Nunez made the tremendous play for the final out (aided by an excellent stretch by Steve Pearce), and he also made a nifty play to retire Stanton in the second. Andrew Benintendi tracked down a line-drive that looked like trouble off the bat. Christian Vazquez blocked a number of Kimbrel curveballs in the dirt. Jackie Bradley nonchalantly caught a 400-foot Aaron Hicks flyout that went right over the center fielder’s head in the first. Betts made a catch down the right field line to start the seventh.

None of those plays were spectacular, per se, but they all played important roles in the win. Ditto for the work of Sandy Leon behind the plate in Game 1, when he blocked about a half-dozen balls in the dirt in a high-stress seventh inning.

Overall, the Red Sox committed just one error in the ALDS (it came in their lone loss), and the defense will have to remain at that level for the upcoming series. To allow extra runners to reach against a lineup as explosive as Houston’s is to beg for trouble.

That’s going to put some added pressure on Rafael Devers. With three of Houston’s four starters being righties, Devers is likely to be in the starting lineup quite a bit. Cora has made it clear that he likes Nunez’s defense over Devers’, which makes sense, considering Devers committed a ridiculous 24 errors this season. (Xander Bogaerts was second on the team. With 10. On 183 more total chances.)

The Red Sox need to play excellent defense to have a chance against Houston, and the pressure will be on for Devers to be a lot better than he’s been all year.

The Red Sox stand for the national anthem for Game 1 of the ALDS. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

All of these keys assume a few things. First and foremost, they assume that J.D. Martinez can continue hitting like J.D. Martinez. That’s as important as anything. They also assume that the Red Sox lineup is able to get to the fearsome trio of Verlander-Cole-Keuchel. They assume that at least one of Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi is able to turn in a quality performance again. They assume that the good Matt Barnes shows up, as he did in the ALDS, and they assume that the rest of the bullpen holds up. And they assume that Boston gets some offensive contributions from less likely sources, like Brock Holt’s cycle in Game 3 vs. New York, or Christian Vazquez’s solo homer in Game 4.

These keys do not assume that David Price will be able to contribute much in Game 2. Anything in that department would be a bonus.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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