A familiar rival awaits the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
The Astros crushed the White Sox, 10-1, on Tuesday afternoon. Like the Red Sox, the Astros dispatched their Division Series opponent in four games, setting up an ALCS rematch.
The Red Sox and Astros squared off in the 2018 ALCS, with the Red Sox advancing to the World Series in five games, and in the 2017 ALDS, when the Astros won in four to kickstart their title run. In 2017, the Astros infamously employed a scheme to use a closed-circuit camera at Minute Maid Park to steal opposing catchers’ signs and relay them to the hitter by banging on a trash can.
MLB’s investigation, with findings were released in January 2020, identified then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora as a key figure in the scheme. That led to the decision by Cora and the Red Sox to part ways in 2020 — a season for which Cora was ultimately suspended — before his return as manager in 2021.
This year, when the Sox hosted the Astros at Fenway, Cora acknowledged his discomfort when fans took aim at Astros players.
“On a personal level, [it was] tough to swallow, tough to hear it, because at the end I was part of that. I was part of the 2017 Astros and I was part of the whole sign-stealing situation,” Cora said in June, after Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman were booed. “Them being booed and screamed at the way they did, I was part of that, too.”
While Cora and the legacy of the 2017 Astros will serve as an unavoidable backdrop, it’s ultimately a footnote to the effort to advance to the World Series. The Astros won five of seven games between the teams in the regular season, outscoring the Red Sox, 42-25.
Houston, which went 95-67 in the regular season under Dusty Baker to win the A.L. West, will have home-field advantage in the ALCS. Game 1 will take place at Minute Maid Park on Friday.
The Red Sox, who enjoyed a day off on Tuesday following their ALDS-clinching win on Monday night, will work out at Fenway Park on Wednesday. The Sox had five scouts covering the series between the Astros and White Sox.
While starting pitchers for the series have yet to be announced, Red Sox ace Nate Eovaldi would be going on four days’ rest if he took the ball in Game 1.
For Christian Vázquez, the regular season represented a step back. After he’d performed as one of the elite two-way catchers in baseball in 2019-20, hitting .278/.327/.472 with 30 homers in 710 plate appearances, the 31-year-old saw his offense drop considerably this year.
He hit .258/.308/.352, numbers that resulted in Kevin Plawecki claiming a growing slice of the playing pie down the stretch. But even in a down year, Vázquez displayed traits that have proven valuable in the playoffs.
Throughout the year, Vázquez performed well against relievers, hitting .273/.336/.405. And against pitches of at least 95 miles per hour he hit .306 (16th best in MLB among the 118 batters who saw at least 300 such pitches) and slugged .556 (14th).
“He is not afraid of a fastball,” said bullpen coach Kevin Walker, whose history with Vázquez dates to their time together with the Lowell Spinners in 2009.
Those skills have allowed Vázquez to contribute immensely in the last week and a half. In the second-to-last day of the season, his RBI triple off a 98-m.p.h. fastball set in motion a four-run, ninth-inning rally that propelled the Sox to a huge win. In Game 3 of the ALDS, he turned on a 96-m.p.h. fastball from Rays reliever Luis Patiño and drilled a walkoff two-run homer. And in Game 4, his single off a Patiño slider kickstarted the winning rally in another walkoff victory.
With Shaw’s shank, redemption
For Travis Shaw, a two-strike dribbler to third base against Rays reliever (and former Brewers teammate) J.P. Feyereisen represented a moment of considerable satisfaction. The ability to put the ball in play as a pinch hitter resulted in a ninth-inning infield single to put runners on first and third with one out, setting up a walkoff sacrifice fly by Kiké Hernández in Game 4 of the ALDS.
After the Brewers designated Shaw for assignment in mid-August, the Sox claimed him off waivers, envisioning his role as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. Though Shaw went 2 for 18 with seven strikeouts as a pinch hitter in the regular season, he showed quality at-bats to earn Cora’s trust, faith that was rewarded when he put the ball in play Monday.
“It’s special. No way to sugarcoat it, you get kind of kicked to the curb by another organization, to come back here, come back to where it started, for them to have belief in me and keep putting me out there in those situations, those big spots means a lot,” said Shaw. “I’m not taking it for granted. The fact that A.C. still trusts me in those big spots means a lot. Hopefully in the next round I’ll come up again in a huge spot. I know I’ll be ready for it.”
Playing in pain
Rafael Devers, after going 6 for 18 with a pair of homers and two walks in the ALDS, downplayed the impact of his right forearm injury.
“Obviously I’ve been dealing with something for the past couple of days, but I only feel it when I swing [hard against fastballs] and I miss,” Devers said through translator Bryan Loor-Almonte. “But other than that, I’m still trying to grind it out, trying to give 100 percent to my team for a chance to win. I’m just going to make myself available and I’m glad I’m able to help out the team win.”
According to Fox Sports, Monday’s game averaged 3.29 million viewers on FS1, a 20-percent jump from the Yankees-Rays Game 4 in 2020.
The game had a 20.0 rating and 35 share in the Boston market. It was 8.1/15 in the Tampa Bay area.
Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report.