Doesn’t it feel like the baseball season just started yesterday? It was a blink of an eye ago that the season kicked off on a Thursday in March, and now we’re down to four clubs fighting for glory. In the American League, it’s the hardly-a-surprise showdown of the big guns, the Astros and Red Sox .The National League features one blue blood in the Dodgers and one underdog we can all root for, the Brewers. So who has the edge in these series? Let’s take a closer look:
American League — Red Sox (108-54) vs. Astros (103-59)
Only once before have two ALCS combatants combined for this many wins, when the 95-win Yankees trounced the 116-win Mariners in five games back in 2001. But this is different. The defending-champion Astros appear even better than last year, with a dependable bullpen and another ace in Gerrit Cole. But the Red Sox are locked and loaded with your top two MVP candidates, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, at least one dominant ace, and a better-than-you-think bullpen.
The Red Sox score runs at will, and will break your spirit with two-out rallies. The Astros are rounding back into a top-notch unit, especially given the breakout year by Alex Bregman. But this isn’t the same lineup as in 2017, and the Red Sox’s 2018 version is better than Houston’s offense was last year. Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and J.D. Martinez are a lethal 1-2-3 combo. The Astros desperately need something from Carlos Correa, as he has been dropped all the way to seventh in the order. Edge: Red Sox.
The Astros are ridiculous in this department. But keep in mind that they had their worst ERA against Boston of any club this year. Verlander, Cole, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton have the on-paper edge against Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Nathan Eovaldi. Sale needs to prove himself somewhat after a disastrous Game 1 start in Houston last year. Cole’s Astros playoff debut was a smashing success, so there’s reason to believe he’s ready to roll in this series. Edge: Astros.
The Astros posted the best relievers ERA in the AL, but is that as big a deal as it seems? Not when you consider how many innings the starters covered. The Red Sox’s pen was strong for the most part against the Yankees, or at least in Games 2-4. Craig Kimbrel has looked shaky, but Roberto Osuna has had some letdowns against the Sox pitching for Toronto in the AL East. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier have looked good for Boston. Edge: Even.
Alex Cora knows the Astros very well, having been one of A.J. Hinch’s right-hand men during last year’s title run. He is analytics-driven and the approach of his team has been impeccable. Still, Hinch has a way of keeping his team unified under tough circumstances. These coaches know one another very well, and both teams are about as fundamentally sound as they get. Edge: Even.
There is just something with Boston sports teams that no other city has or, for that matter, can even define. When the going gets tough, the New Englanders are different animals. Still, one thing to note is that over the years, their dominance is often predicated on getting into the heads of their overwhelmed opponents. That likely won’t be the case with the Astros. One of my favorite personal sayings is “the key to beating the Patriots is beating the Patriots.” So like in the NFL, my belief is that once a team has done it before, they can do it again. The ‘Stros took out the Sox in four games in last year’s ALDS, and that was with a very bad bullpen. They won’t be intimidated. Still, Boston has homefield advantage and just plowed through an incredibly tough ALDS opponent, which is more than we can say for Houston. Edge: Red Sox.
Look, I can’t abandon my beliefs now. I was on the Yankees last series, if only for the pride factor of having picked the matchup correctly before season and feeling like they had the momentum to power past the Sox. But I also had my back-pocket disclaimer that the winner of that series would win it all, just as I said before the season. David Price will have at least one good start in this series, and homefield advantage will prove to be the difference-maker just as it was for the Astros last year. Prediction: Red Sox in 7.
National League — Brewers (96-67) vs. Dodgers (92-71)
The “underdog” in this series, the Brewers, happen to be the team that ended up with the league’s best record. They have won 11 straight, and are doing it in a very similar fashion to the 2015 Royals. But the Dodgers also have something that 2015 Royals team had — a sense of unfinished business. A year after falling a game short in the World Series, the Dodgers are back with potentially better starting pitching and one more superstar in their lineup in Manny Machado. These teams met seven times in the regular season, all after the Machado trade, with the Dodgers going 4-3.
L.A. is dependent on the long ball, but the good news is they’ve been getting quite a few of those lately. Thunder up and down the lineup is a far cry from the Brewers, who do have power but have been overly reliant on 2018 NL MVP (yes, I’m saying it now) Christian Yelich. The Dodgers even have offensive depth, with the likes of David Freese and Brian Dozier trumping Jonathan Schoop of Milwaukee’s side. The emergence (again) of Enrique Hernandez has been huge for the Dodgers. Edge: Dodgers.
This isn’t even really a contest, because the Brewers don’t even think about the term “starting pitching” anymore. They don’t have anything close to an ace like Clayton Kershaw, and burgeoning star Walker Buehler could be the real X-factor. Hyun-Jin Ryu has also blossomed into an ace, and Rich Hill is always capable of a strong outing. Jhoulys Chacin has been tremendous lately for the Brewers, but they are far inferior in this department to L.A. Edge: Dodgers.
Obviously, this is the Brewers’ bread and butter. The bullpen sometimes doubles as the starting pitching, and there are plenty of options for Craig Counsell to navigate a big portion of the game. Josh Hader is looking like Andrew Miller circa 2016, even if Jeremy Jeffress has looked a bit shaky as the traditional closer. Corey Knebel’s resurgence has been a huge part of the team’s recent success. Don’t sleep on L.A.’s bullpen, as the likes of Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson have gotten big outs all year to bridge the gap to Kenley Jansen. But Jansen has been shaky at times, and certainly will be pushed again as he has been in years past by manager Dave Roberts. Edge: Brewers.
Counsell is quite possibly your Manager of the Year, just as Roberts was last year. He has manipulated his bullpen almost flawlessly in recent weeks, and will need to press all the right buttons again for the Crew to have shot at the upset. But Roberts has been a masterful tactician as well, and deserves just as much credit for getting the most out of a supposedly-mediocre group of relievers. These are two of the premier managers in the game right now. Edge: Even.
The Brewers are riding high on an 11-game winning streak, but will this little layoff hurt them?. And will the emotion of all the buzz inside a raucous Miller Park actually over-amp them? The Dodgers underwhelmed at times in 2017, but seem to be perfectly comfortable where they are right now. They are clicking on all cylinders and as I mentioned before, there seems to be a sense of unfinished business after they were denied their first championship since 1988 by the Astros last October (actually, technically, it was last November). The offense seems deeper, with the Machado trade lengthening the lineup, and key veteran additions like Freese paying big dividends. The Brewers have tremendous team chemistry, and that can’t be understated, but the Dodgers will present a much tougher challenge than the beleaguered Rockies did. Edge: Dodgers.
In my heart, I’d love to pick the Brewers. Baseball has had a way of giving us some great underdog stories the last few years deep into the postseason, with relative-unknowns such as the Astros, Indians, Royals, and Mets providing World Series thrills. But this is where that 2-3-2 format once again works against the home team, because I don’t see Milwaukee taking the first two at Miller Park. That means if the Dodgers win two of three at home in Games 3-5, they’ll have the edge heading back to Wisconsin. I’m banking on that happening, and this Los Angeles team powering its way back to the Fall Classic for a date with the BoSox. Prediction: Dodgers in 6.