Sports Astros-Red Sox series pits No. 1 pitching staff vs. No. 1 offense
ALCS preview? ALDS preview? That remains to be seen.
What is known about this weekend’s series at Fenway Park is that it pits the AL West-leading Astros (87-53) against the only major league team with a better record, the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox (97-44).
How good — and we’re talking consistently good — has Boston been in 2018? It has had a winning percentage of at least .620 in every month. (You’ll surely remember the 1912 world champs as the only Red Sox team to achieve that feat.) And it’s the only major league team without a four-game losing streak all year.
The Red Sox, who could clinch a playoff berth as soon as Saturday, are on pace for 111 victories, which would be the highest total since the 2001 Mariners matched the MLB record of 116. They have won seven of their last nine, including Wednesday’s remarkable 9-8 victory over the Braves in which they overcame a 7-1 deficit with six eighth-inning runs and rallied again with a two-run ninth-inning homer.
The Astros have caught fire themselves, winning their last five games and 12 of their last 15. That puts them on pace for 101 victories, which would match last year’s total and fall one shy of their 1998 club record.
Considering the Texans happen to be visiting the New England Patriots on Sunday, Houstonians can practically hear the strains of Dave Loggins’ 1974 chestnut “Please Come To Boston.” What makes this September baseball series extra intriguing is that it pits the majors’ top offense (Boston) against the No. 1 pitching staff (Houston).
The Astros lead the majors in ERA (3.08), WHIP (1.09) and strikeouts (1,470). The Red Sox are No. 1 in runs (766), batting average (.268), slugging (.455) and OPS (.793) and second in on-base percentage at .338, a percentage point behind the Chicago Cubs.
Thanks largely to the free-agent signing of J.D. Martinez (aka the guy the Astros discarded five springs ago), Boston has addressed its power shortcoming of last year, when it hit an AL-low 168 home runs and fell to the Astros in a four-game American League Division Series. The Red Sox are seventh in the majors this year with 182 homers.
Not that the Astros are offensive slouches. They rank fourth in runs (695) and fifth in OPS (.760), on-base percentage (.329) and slugging (.431).
And it’s not like Boston can’t pitch. The Red Sox are third in the majors in strikeouts (1,355), fourth in ERA (3.62) and eighth in WHIP (1.24).
It’s easy to see how the Astros and Red Sox split four games at Minute Maid Park from May 31-June 3, with the teams separated by a run, 19-18 in Boston’s favor.
With the starts Martinez and Mookie Betts got off to, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to think the league’s top three Most Valuable Player candidates, including defending MVP Jose Altuve, would be convening when the teams met again.
But on the way to this weekend’s Fenway fun, something happened to alter that projection a little. His name is Alex Bregman.
If there’s any Astro with a chance to challenge Martinez or Betts in the MVP race, it’s the third baseman who presently epitomizes the word scorching.
Bregman has reached base in 33 consecutive games, the majors’ longest active streak and the longest by an Astro since Lance Berkman reached in 37 straight in 2004.
In his last 17 games, Bregman is hitting .446 (29-for-65) with six homers, nine doubles, 17 runs, 21 RBIs and an .862 slugging percentage.
For the season, Bregman is slashing .298/.399/.537 with 29 homers, 95 runs and 96 RBIs. And he has jumped to the top of the majors with 77 extra-base hits (including an MLB-best 46 doubles) and now ranks fourth in WAR (as measured by FanGraphs) at 7.3.
Martinez, meanwhile, is making a run at a Triple Crown. His 115 RBIs put him nine ahead of Oakland’s Khris Davis, and his 39 homers trail Davis by one. With a .3353 batting average, Martinez is a fraction of a point behind Betts, and he leads the majors in hits (170), slugging (.641) and total bases (325).
As for Betts? The right fielder leads the majors in WAR (8.5) and batting (.3354) and is second in runs (111), on-base percentage (.425) and defensive runs saved (17, as measured by FanGraphs) and eighth in stolen bases (27).
Assuming the Astros hold on to their West lead, presently 3½ games over Oakland, they couldn’t face Boston in the postseason until the AL Championship Series (assuming as well that the Red Sox don’t blow a 9½-game edge over the New York Yankees). Adding spice to that potential showdown is the fact the Red Sox are managed by Alex Cora, who a year ago was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach as the Astros marched to their first world championship.
If there’s one thing missing from this weekend’s three-game Astros-Red Sox set, it’s the teams’ respective aces. Justin Verlander’s next Astros start comes Monday, when for the first time he takes the mound as a visitor at Detroit.
Boston’s Chris Sale, who has been limited to one start since the beginning of August because of a shoulder issue, might return next week, although there’s a chance the Red Sox employ him as an opener for one or two innings as they ease him back into action.
But don’t fret. There’s a reasonable chance October brings a Verlander-Sale matchup (or two). And this weekend’s stakes will be nothing compared to those.