The Red Sox are riding high after an impressive ALDS victory over the Yankees in four games, with the last two wins coming in the Bronx. They’ll need their rest, though, as the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros will be in Boston for Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday night at Fenway Park.
Here are five keys for the Red Sox if they’re going to win this seven-game series and earn a trip to the World Series:
1. Getting early leads vs. Houston starting pitching
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The Astros swept a very talented Indians team in three games in the ALDS, winning the series by a run-total of 21-6. When the Red Sox score first, they do a terrific job of holding on for the win — getting on the scoreboard first in all three of their playoff victories over the Yankees.
This Houston pitching rotation will make it tough on Boston. The foursome of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are as good as you’ll find in baseball, and Morton (who likely only starts Game 4) is the only one that allows a career batting average above .252 to these Boston bats.
That said, in six starts against the Red Sox this season, the foursome only earned the win in two of the outings — although Houston came back in some of them and went 4-3 against Boston in the regular season. All four posted a higher ERA against Boston than they did during the regular season, so this lineup’s shown they can be better than elite pitching. Time to make it count in the postseason.
2. The potential MVP needs to step up
J.D. Martinez wasted no time putting his stamp on the ALDS, smashing a three-run homer onto the Green Monster in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1. But where has Mookie Betts been?
Betts is just 3-for-16 (.188 average) so far in these playoffs, and although he does have a double, three walks and three runs, a chunk of that was gravy with an eventual 16-1 Game 3 victory already put away.
Mookie’s 26-for-68 (.382 average) against this Houston pitching staff, including 12 extra-base hits (2 HR), 11 RBI and 14 walks. Let’s see that Mookie Betts show up with a trip to the Fall Classic on the line.
3. David Price’s role
We all know Price’s postseason struggles by now. The Game 2 loss at Fenway was the lefty’s 10th career playoff start, yet he remains winless — a claim no other pitcher in the history of baseball can make.
Although the Sox lost to the ‘Stros in four games during last year’s ALDS, Price played a major role in keeping his team in the series with his work out of the bullpen. Price came in as a middle reliever in two games, going 6.2 scoreless innings and allowing just five hits.
Price has only pitched strictly out of the bullpen in two of the nine postseasons he’s played in. The other one? That’d be a 2008 run to the World Series as a rookie for the Rays, when he made five appearances and posted a mere 1.59 ERA.
While Price has already been announced by Alex Cora as Sunday’s Game 2 starter against Houston, let’s see if Cora transitions him to a bullpen role as the series progresses.
4. Managing the bullpen
The series against the Yankees taught us a lot about the manager’s faith, or lack thereof, in his relievers when it matters most. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier were terrific in the sixth and seventh innings of Game 4 respectively, but where Cora turned afterwards spoke volumes.
There were two “close games” in the ALDS — Games 1 and 4 in which Boston was up three runs or less entering the eighth inning. Who was Cora’s trusted reliever he opted to give the ball to in these scenarios? Well, it was arguably his best two starters, as Rick Porcello got the eighth inning in Game 1, and Chris Sale notably dominated the eighth inning of Game 4.
There’s a clear lack of trust between Cora and his bullpen, which is all the more reason to insert Price into the only role he’s ever thrived in during the postseason.
5. Cardiac Craig Kimbrel
I’ll admit, the overall numbers during the regular season were pretty strong, but don’t you just get that feeling that this guy always makes things more difficult on himself when it matters?
In 13.2 innings versus playoff teams this season, Kimbrel gave up five runs, which was nearly a full run higher than his ERA against non-playoff teams. While the numbers aren't alarming, his postseason performance thus far has been.
While Cardiac Craig “capitalized” on both his save opportunities against the Yankees, he nearly blew both chances. He entered Games 1 and 4 with two and three-run leads respectively, yet allowed New York to come within one-run each time.
His numbers for the series? 2.1 innings, two hits, two walks, a home run and a hit-by-pitch, all coming together for an 11.57 ERA. Of Kimbrel’s 28 pitches in Game 4, less than half (13) went for strikes.
While Cardiac Craig’s pitched two perfect innings against Houston this season, the Red Sox will need him to take a huge step forward from what he gave them against the Yankees.