ALCS preview: Astros should win a closely contested series

A capsule look at the Boston Red Sox-Houston Astros ALCS:

When they matched with the Boston Red Sox in last year’s American League Division Series, the Houston Astros seemed unstoppable. They’d bolstered their starting rotation with the waiver-deadline acquisition of Justin Verlander, scored the most runs in baseball and won 101 games on the way to their first American League West division crown.

Little has changed — except that the Astros have become stronger since winning last year’s World Series. They boast the stingiest pitching staff in baseball (3.11 ERA) and one of the majors’ most well-rounded offenses.

The Red Sox, who were 108-54 during a record-setting campaign, pose a credible threat to the Astros’ throne. They’re nearly as efficient offensively and have three front-line starters in Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and David Price. They combined for a 3.39 ERA (198 earned runs in 525 1/3 innings) in the regular season.

But the New York Yankees, who the Red Sox beat in four games in the ALDS, exposed Boston’s biggest weakness: A bullpen that has few dependable solutions as a bridge for closer Craig Kimbrel. Even Kimbrel looked shaky during the series. He gave up three earned runs in two outings. In the Red Sox’s Game 4 victory, he hit a Yankees batter with the bases loaded and allowed a second run on a sacrifice fly.

Two 100-win teams. Complete offenses. Multiple team MVPs. If it weren’t for Boston’s struggling relief corps, the Red Sox and Astros would be evenly matched. Home-field advantage might make a difference in the series. There was no one better at home than the Red Sox, who had a 57-24 record at Fenway Park. That said, no team played better on the road than the Astros, who were 57-24 away from Minute Maid Park.

WHY THE ASTROS SHOULD WIN

The Astros didn’t win 108 games like the Red Sox, but they still managed 103 victories (two more than last year) without full seasons from Jose Altuve or Carlos Correa. Alex Bregman emerged as a dark-horse candidate for the AL MVP award and had a 2.048 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and batted .556 with four walks and one strikeout in the ALDS against Cleveland.

Yes, one strikeout. That’s the thing about the defending champions: They didn’t hit as many home runs as the Yankees (267) or Dodgers (235), but they are disciplined at the plate and they can put the ball in the play. Astros batters struck out just 1,197 times, the second-lowest total in baseball. They batted .255, just 11 points behind the majors-leading Red Sox, and they ranked sixth out of 30 teams in runs scored (797). The only team left in the playoffs who can claim a similar profile is the Red Sox. More on that later.

Houston’s pitchers, of course, provided a strong backbone. They gave up 3.30 runs per game, which was lowest in the majors. The trend continued in the ALDS, as the Indians managed just six runs in three games.

The Red Sox must watch out for the continued excellence of starting pitchers Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Dallas Keuchel; the trio anchored a rotation that led the majors in starter’s ERA (3.16).

The Astros have an advantage in the bullpen. They have so many quality arms, manager A.J. Hinch and Co. left right-hander Hector Rondon, who posted a career-best 3.20 ERA in 63 appearances, off the ALDS roster. Fellow right-hander Joe Smith, who held left-handed hitters to a .191 batting average, received the same fate. The Astros allowed the second-fewest homers (152) this year. That may pose a problem for a hard-slugging Red Sox club that led the majors with a .792 OPS and 2,550 total bases.

HOW THE RED SOX CAN WIN

Boston batters hit 208 home runs, 31 triples and 355 doubles. They led in the former category and ranked sixth in walks with 569.

But prolific production won’t mean much if Red Sox starters fail to provide length and force rookie manager Alex Cora to turn to his relievers early in the ALCS.

The Red Sox bullpen yielded seven earned runs and issued 11 walks in 17 innings during the division series. However, the bulk of those runs and innings were logged in the second game of the series, as the Yankees knocked Price out of his start after 1 2/3 innings. Beyond Price, who was charged three earned runs, Red Sox starters only yielded four earned runs in a combined 17 1/3 innings.

For now, Price will not pitch out of the bullpen like he did against the Astros in last year’s ALDS. He is scheduled to start Game 2 on Sunday at Fenway Park. Cora cited Price’s success against the Astros as the main reason for the decision: Price was 1-0 and had a 3.65 ERA (five earned runs in 12 1/3 innings) in two starts against the Astros this season.

Sale, the Red Sox ace who pitched a quick eighth inning in Game 4 of the ALDS, will start the ALCS opener opposite Astros No.1 starter Verlander. Cole will oppose Price on Sunday.

WHO’S COMING IN HOT

A near-handful of MVP candidates will take the field at Fenway Park when the ALCS begins Saturday. One of them, J.D. Martinez, keyed Boston’s offense during the ALDS. Martinez hit .357 and drove in six runs. He also never struck out in his 17 plate appearances. Instead, he drew six walks.

The Astros’ George Springer extended his season-ending offensive tear into the playoffs. Among qualified hitters, Springer’s 1.500 OPS this postseason is second only to Bregman.

WHO’S COMING IN COLD

Likely AL MVP Mookie Betts scored what ended up being the game-winning run for the Red Sox in the opening game of the ALDS and scored two of Boston’s 16 runs in its historic defeat of the New York in Game 3 of the series. But Betts did little else. In four games, he batted .188 (three for 16) with three walks and four strikeouts.

Carlos Correa was one of two Astros regulars held to one hit in the first round of the playoffs. But Correa hit a three-run homer off the Indians’ Brad Hand to pad the Astros’ lead in Game 3 of the ALDS.

SEASON SERIES

The Astros won four of seven games against the Red Sox, outscoring them 34-31.

PREDICTION

Astros in seven games.

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