How much has changed since the last Red Sox-Astros postseason meeting?
Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi and David Price were among the protagonists as Boston polished off Houston in the 2018 American League Championship Series. Each of those Red Sox playoff heroes have scattered elsewhere within the last 20 months.
Astros executive Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were fired due to their involvement in the club’s 2017 electronic sign-stealing caper. Alex Cora, the former Houston bench coach turned Red Sox manager, also paid for his indiscretions with his job.
The primary difference we might expect when Game 1 begins Friday night at Minute Maid Park? Venom. This is the third playoff series between the two clubs in five years, and the folks in the bleachers at Fenway Park aren’t likely to be any more welcoming.
Who will reach the World Series when all is said and done? It was Boston advancing last time and dismissing the Dodgers in the same five-game span. There is a path for the Red Sox to do the same three years later, but it might look a little different.
Keep Carlos Correa off the bases
Boston needs to limit Carlos Correa. The shortstop has assumed the role of de facto Astros captain after George Springer signed a $150-million deal with the Blue Jays in free agency last offseason.
“Very athletic, impactful player who loves to play the game,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He prepares and he’s a leader. I’m very proud of him and what he’s become just watching from afar.”
Correa and Cora both call Puerto Rico home in the offseason and are close off the field. That personal relationship will be put aside over the next couple weeks to deal with a player who went 5-for-13 with two doubles, four runs scored, four RBI and four walks in an ALDS victory over the White Sox. Correa smashed an 0-2 fastball from Carlos Rodon into left field for a two-run double early in Game 4 and Houston was off and running.
Correa was dealing with back problems throughout the previous ALCS meeting between the two clubs and still finished 6-for-19 with two runs scored. His power numbers and control of the strike zone suffered a bit — just one extra-base hit and seven punchouts in five games. Correa should be a different player this time as he continues to build momentum into free agency this offseason.
Rafael Devers needs to adjust
Rafael Devers might want to gear up for a steady diet of fastballs. The Astros pounded him almost exclusively with velocity during a four-game series that finished in early June. An extended tailspin at the plate had Devers searching for a mechanical adjustment.
Devers was back to his usual self by the middle of the month and finished with a .279/.352/.538 slash line. His three-run homer against Shane McClanahan in Game 4 of the A.L. Division Series was off a 97.7-mph heater down the middle. How the Boston third baseman continues to cope with his right forearm injury could be critical to the club’s chances of reaching a fifth World Series since 2004.
Limit Houston’s two-out success
Recording the third out of each inning will be extra important for the Red Sox pitching staff.
Houston scored 18 of its 31 runs in its series against Chicago with two outs. Those tend to carry extra impact, like a well-timed body shot from a championship boxer. They dig deep into the rib cage and suck the oxygen from both your dugout and home stadium.
Boston pitchers held opponents to a .750 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position during the regular season — good but still some room for improvement. The Rays were just 6-for-29 with men at second or third during the ALDS, including a grand slam from Jordan Luplow in Game 2. Those are situations in which the Red Sox must prevail over the next 10 days.
Postseason experience should help
Boston’s experience should come in handy, because the Astros have bags of it. Houston is just the third team in the LCS era to reach five straight series, joining Oakland (1971-75) and Atlanta (1995-99). The Braves also went to the National League Championship Series from 1991-93 — only the MLB Players Association strike midway through the 1994 season broke up what was one of the most successful runs in the history of the sport.
Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Christian Vazquez, Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier all played a role in the 2018 series win over the Astros. Kiké Hernandez (Los Angeles) and Hunter Renfroe (Tampa Bay) met in the World Series last year. Kyle Schwarber was part of the curse breakers with the Cubs in 2016.
Any greener members of the Red Sox need some guidance? Turn immediately to those men or Cora, who has captured all four of his postseason series with Boston and eliminated the Yankees in the A.L. Wild Card matchup.