ALDS preview: Astros vs. Red Sox is a battle of two potent teams

This American League Division Series between the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox might have it all — a top-flight pitching matchup, an MVP candidate, a Cy Young candidate, fun-to-watch young stars and two division champs who could very well go on an October run.

But this is step one. The Astros and Red Sox meet for as many as five games beginning Thursday. We’ll see Justin Verlander and Chris Sale in Game 1. We’ll see Jose Altuve the entire series, showing us why he might just be the most valuable player in the AL. We’ll see Carlos Correa and Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi and Alex Bregman.

These are two teams who pitch well and have varying strengths on offense, but they’ve managed to turn them into successful seasons. The Red Sox won 93 games for their second straight AL East title and the Astros finished with 101 games after being the best team in baseball for a good stretch this season.

Only one is going to advance, though and pretty soon, we’ll find out who that is.

SCHEDULE
Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 5, in Houston, 4 p.m. ET (TV coverage on MLB Network)
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 6, in Houston, 2 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1)
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 8, in Boston, 2:30 p.m. ET (FS1)
Game 4*: Monday, Oct. 9, in Boston, time TBD (FS1)
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 11, in Houston, time TBD (FS1)
*if necessary

PREVIOUSLY
The Red Sox and Astros met seven times this season with Houston having the slight edge. The series was 4-3 Astros, with a 35-22 total score. One of those series will be fresh in the mind of everybody involved — unfortunately for the Red Sox. The Astros ended their season in Boston, taking three of four at Fenway Park. That included a 12-2 win on Sept. 28, plus two one-run wins. The Red Sox did win on the second-to-last day of the season with Drew Pomeranz, their Game 2 starter, on the mound.

The other meeting between these two came in Houston in mid-June. The Red Sox won two of three at Minute Maid Park. It’s worth noting that aside from that 12-2 Astros win and a 7-1 Red Sox win, these two have played each other pretty close. Four of their games were decided by one run.

(AP)

PITCHING
Game 1: Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90 ERA) at Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.82)
Game 2: Drew Pomeranz (17-6, 3.32) at Dallas Keuchel (14-5, 2.90)
Game 3: TBA
Game 4: TBA
Game 5: TBA

The Astros-Red Sox matchup will give us the best starting pitching matchup of the division-series round, a Game 1 duel between Sale and Verlander, two former AL Central aces who have been quite good in their new homes.

Sale’s story, you’re probably familiar with now. He was traded from the White Sox to the Red Sox last winter and put together a Cy Young-quality year in Boston. He hasn’t faced the Astros this season. Verlander, meanwhile, was traded from the Tigers to the Astros at the end of August and has looked fantastic in his new digs. Verlander, 34, had an ERA of 1.06 in five starts since joining the Astros.

Game 2 also looks good with former Cy Young winner Keuchel facing Pomeranz, but after that, these two have some questions. Neither team has revealed their plans for Game 3 and beyond. The Red Sox have a Cy Young winner waiting too — Rick Porcello, but his stats (11-17, 4.65 ERA) aren’t what they were last year when he won the award. The Red Sox also have Doug Fister, who has revived his career there in recent months. On Houston’s side, Brad Peacock is underrated and Charlie Morton has been better than most people realize. Lance McCullers Jr., who was good in stretches for the Astros, will most likely come out of the bullpen.

Where Boston holds an advantage is its bullpen. Its 3.15 ERA was second best in baseball this season, behind only the Cleveland Indians. Houston ranked 17th with a 4.27 ERA.

Jose Altuve is an MVP candidate this season and might be the key to Houston’s October. (AP)

THREE KEYS FOR HOUSTON
• Keep hitting: 
Yes, this is very, very obvious, but the Astros would do well to hit the ball and score runs. Now, you can say that about every team in baseball, but the Astros? Offense is their thing. You may not think of them as a Blue Jays-a-couple-years-ago type of juggernaut, but they scored the most runs in MLB this season and had the most hits. They’re also second in the league in homers. The Astros have a long lineup in which pretty much every player is dangerous. They were built to avoid a postseason slump. They just need to keep doing what got them here.

Figure out Game 3: Game 3 feels like the wild card here. The Red Sox are probably gonna send out Porcello, who hasn’t pitched like the same guy who won a Cy Young last year. The Astros are probably gonna call on Brad Peacock, who isn’t a huge name but was quietly crucial. If the Astros can line up well for Game 3 — whether it’s Peacock or someone else — it could be pivotal for this series, especially if Sale beats them in Game 1.

• Get the most out of their starters: Houston’s strong suit isn’t its bullpen. The Astros have some good arms down there, but they’re not the Indians or the Yankees. The advantage the Astros have is that Keuchel and Verlander are both capable of giving Houston eight — maybe even nine — innings in a postseason start. Their relievers, a group that includes Chris Devinski, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris and closer Ken Giles, can get the job done, but the Astros would be better served to do it with starting pitching.

Boston Red Sox’s David Price reacts after striking out Houston Astros’ George Springer to retire the side with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a baseball game in Boston, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

THREE KEYS FOR BOSTON
• Who’s your Papi? 
Nowhere might the absence of David Ortiz be more glaring than the postseason. Sure, the Red Sox have a number of great hitters, but Ortiz always seemed to have that bit of October flair that gave the Red Sox hope, even in the bad years. Well, he’s gone. And the Red Sox need someone to step up as their clutch performer. Big Papi’s shoes will never been filled, but to get through October, you gotta find some magic. Mookie Betts? Andrew Benintendi? Rafael Devers? Who’s it going to be?

• Early leads are their friend: As we’ve already said, the Red Sox have a bullpen advantage. We’ve seen this time and time again in the postseason — get a lead and lean on your relievers. For the Red Sox, that’s bullpen ace Craig Kimbrel, but also set-up man Addison Reed and two more recent weapons. David Price looks to be coming out of the pen for Boston in the postseason, since he’s not stretched out enough to start after an elbow injury. There’s also Carson Smith, who has been impressive in a small sample this year, returning to the Red Sox in September after Tommy John surgery. There’s a lot of potential there to limit the Astros in late innings if they can grab a lead.

Use Price Right: We just talked about him, but he’s worth a second bullet point. David Price is one of the most fascinating people in this series. If the Red Sox can turn him into an Andrew Miller-type weapon to use in high-leverage situations, it makes their gameplan much more dynamic — particularly against a loaded Astros lineup. John Farrell can’t stick to tradition here. Use Price in big moments and let your back-end guys do their jobs later.

The Astros are a home-run hitting squad. The Red Sox are not. (AP)

FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS
• 0.00 — That’s Chris Sale’s postseason ERA. Not because he’s great, because he’s never pitched in the postseason. We’ve seen the pressure of October gobble up good pitchers before, so it’s not a sure thing that Sale will dominate like he did in the regular season.

• 70 — The difference in homers this season between the Astros (238, No. 2 in MLB) and the Red Sox (168, No. 27 in MLB). Big advantage Astros there.

• 102 — Stolen bases allowed by the Astros, which ranks fifth in MLB. They’re a strong, well-rounded team, but one area they don’t excel is controlling the run game. Boston, meanwhile, is pretty good at stealing bases. Their offense ranked sixth overall this season.

• .381 — Jose Altuve’s career batting average against Sale (8-for-21). He’s the only Astros with a .300 average against Sale (which not many people anywhere have). Next highest is George Springer at .250.

• 1.46 — Pomeranz’s ERA against the Astros this season, his best against any team he faced more than once. In two starts, he allowed just two earned runs over 12 innings. If the Red Sox can take Game 1 and Pomeranz can dominate the Astros again in Game 2, Boston would go home very happy.

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!