BOSTON (CBS) — This is the ALCS we all wanted.

Well, except for fans in New York. And Cleveland. And Oakland. But when they’re done sulking about their respective playoff losses, they should come around and respect a best-of-7 between the two best teams in baseball.

The Red Sox-Astros ALCS puts strength against strength, as Boston’s powerful offense will try to do damage off Houston’s incredible pitching staff. The Red Sox led the league in just about every offensive category while the Astros allowed an MLB-low 534 runs during the regular season (3.3 per game). The Astros also have a potent offense themselves, while the Red Sox pitching staff is also pretty good despite a handful of question marks littered throughout.

Boston manager Alex Cora is plenty familiar with the Astros, having won a nice ring with them as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach last season. Now he gets to go against his friend and former players, and many point to their manager’s intimate knowledge of their opponent as a big X-factor for the Red Sox.

That could very well be the case, but there are much bigger X-factors at play. Here is a look at five players on each team who will play a big role in their squads moving on to the World Series — or heading home for the winter.

Mookie Betts

Mookie Betts (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Boston’s high-powered offense starts with Mookie, who should bring home the MVP award next month. But Betts needs to start hitting over the next week, or the Red Sox season won’t last much longer.

Betts was 3-for-16 (.188) against the Yankees in the ALDS with just one extra-base hit (a double in Game 1) and four strikeouts. In 11 career playoff games, he is hitting just .238 with only four extra-base hits. We all know he’s better than that, and Mookie knows he needs to be better than that. The Red Sox survived last series despite his struggles, but he needs to bust out of this postseason slump of his against the defending champs.

There is reason to believe that Betts will do just that, but it may not happen Saturday night. He’s 0-for-13 against Justin Verlander in his career, which doesn’t bode well for Game 1. But Betts has feasted on Game 2 starter Garret Cole (5-for-8) and Game 3 starter Dallas Kuechel (3-for-6 with two doubles and a homer). Going against a pair of pitchers that he hits well could be just what the doctor ordered for Boston’s struggling leadoff man.

Xander Bogaerts

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

His name begins with X, so we really didn’t have a choice now did we?

Bogaerts had a career year in 2018, and needs to keep it going if the Red Sox want to punch their ticket to the World Series. He went 5-for-17 in the ALDS, but his only extra-base hit was a solo homer in Boston’s Game 2 loss. He hit a career-high 45 doubles this season, and needs to hit at least a few of those against the Astros.

David Price

David Price (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Chris Sale gets the start in Game 1, and generally, people feel pretty confident that the lefty is healthy again and can guide Boston to a series-opening win. The same cannot be said for the southpaw going in Game 2.

David Price will toe the rubber for Boston on Sunday night, still in search of his first postseason win as a starter. He’s now 0-9 in his playoff starts with an ERA of 6.08. He lasted just 1.2 innings in Game 2 against the Yankees last week, responsible for Boston’s only loss of the series. The playoffs have been brutal for Price throughout his career, but Cora still has faith in his No. 2 starter.

Price did have success against the Astros during the regular season, going 1-0 with a 3.65 ERA in two starts. But none of that matters if Price can’t give Boston a quality start on Sunday night. He does in fact have four of those in the postseason, he’s just never won any of them. That needs to change.

Nathan Eovaldi

Nathan Eovaldi. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

If Sale and Price’s starts go the way most expect them to, the Red Sox and Astros will head to Houston tied 1-1. That would put a bright spotlight on Eovaldi, who will likely get the start for Boston in Game 3.

He lost his only start against Houston during the regular season, allowing four runs off seven hits over six innings as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays in late June. Both Jose Altuve and George Spinger took him deep that day as Houston won 5-1.

Astros hitters have had success against Eovladi in the past. Altuve is 5-for-15 with a double and two homers, while Carlos Correa is 4-for-13. Spinger is just 1-for-9 against the righty in his career, but that one hit was the aforementioned dinger. Alex Bregman has one hit in three at-bats against Eovaldi, which also left the yard.

Boston will need Eovaldi to be sharp again when he gets his turn in Houston.

Craig Kimbrel

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)

Kimbrel struggled to find the strike zone Tuesday night and nearly blew Boston’s ALDS-clinching win over the Yankees. Her walked two batters (both on four pitches) and hit another to force in a run. The Yankees touched Kimbrel for two runs in the inning, and Gary Sanchez came just a few feet short of hitting a game-winning grand slam. The Sox won the game and the series, but worry about Kimbrel’s effectiveness when the spotlight is glaring have crept back in.

The closer was working on his delivery with pitching coach Dana Levangie in the bullpen on Thursday, so hopefully his control will be back by Saturday night. There wasn’t much faith in the Boston bullpen to begin with, and if Kimbrel isn’t his usual All-Star self at the end of games, the Sox are in deep, deep trouble.

Alex Bregman

Alex Bregman (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Jose Altuve was the MVP last season and George Spinger won the award in the World Series. But Bregman is the key for Houston. The Astros third baseman clubbed 31 home runs and drove in 104 runs during the regular season, and he is coming off an ALDS where he hit .556 (5-for-9) with two homers and four RBIs against Cleveland.

That hot hitting should continue, which is bad news for Boston. Four of Bregman’s seven hits against the Red Sox during the regular season went for extra bases (two doubles, two homers). He’s also had success against Price, going 3-for-7 with a double and a homer against the lefty.

Carlos Correa

Carlos Correa and George Springer celebrate after defeating the Boston Red Sox 5-3 on Sept. 8, 2018.(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Correa played just just 110 games during the regular season and he hit a career-low .239 due to a lingering back injury. He went 0-for-9 to start the postseason before clubbing a solo homer against the Indians in the eighth inning of Houston’s series-clinching win. The Astros have survived because they have plenty of other big bats in their lineup, but if Correa can get going, they could be unstoppable. If not, it’s once less hitter Sox pitchers have to worry about.

Dallas Keuchel

Dallas Keuchel. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Keuchel won 20 games and the AL Cy Young in 2015, but hasn’t been the same pitcher since. He was just 12-11 during the 2018 regular season, giving up a career-high 211 hits and 58 walks in 204.2 innings.

The lefty was crushed in his only start against Boston in the regular season, giving up five runs on nine hits over six innings just over a month ago. This version of Keuchel is very hittable, and one the Red Sox should be able to take advantage of when the series shifts to Houston.

Lance McCullers Jr.

Lance McCullers Jr. pitches against the Red Sox in 2017. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

A starter to begin the season, McCullers landed on the DL with elbow discomfort landed in early August. When he returned last month, he was delegated to the bullpen.

It’s been a good move so far, as the righty didn’t allow a run in any of his five relief appearances. The two hits he gave up both came in Houston’s Game 3 win over Cleveland, back-to-back singles in the bottom of the eighth in a 10-2 game. He quickly erased them too, getting Jose Ramirez to ground into an inning-ending double play.

Hinch can feel confident in McCullers getting a few key outs, or giving him a couple of innings of solid relief. He pitched four shutout innings against the Yankees last year in Houston’s Game 7 victory of the ALCS.

McCullers got the win over Boston as a starter in May, tossing six innings of two-run ball, but the Red Sox have had success against him. Betts is 4-for-9 in his career against the McCullers with a pair of doubles, while Bogaerts is 5-for-15 with three doubles.

Roberto Osuna

Astros closer Roberto Osuna. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Despite some pretty terrible off-the-field baggage, the Astros solidified their bullpen at the trade deadline by getting Osuna. He’s gone 13-for-13 in his save opportunities, including one against Cleveland in the ALDS.

But the Red Sox have seen a lot of the former Blue Jay and have hit him for three blown saves over the last three seasons. Notably, Betts is 3-for-9 and Bogaerts is 4-for-9 in their careers against Osuna. The Houston closer has been good lately, but the Red Sox can get to him.


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