HOUSTON — Both the Red Sox and Astros delivered surprising news Thursday about who’s in and who’s out for the first two starts of their AL Championship Series.
Chris Sale, who’s been “absolutely horrible” by his own admission, will get the nod for the Red Sox in Game 1. Nate Eovaldi, who’s been the opposite this postseason, will start Game 2.
The Astros, meanwhile, announced that their best starter, Lance McCullers, will miss at least the first two games and very well could miss the entire series pending results of an MRI of his right forearm. That development meant the Red Sox lineup will face lefty curveball specialist Framber Valdez in Game 1, and righthander Luis Garcia Saturday afternoon in Game 2.
Eovaldi’s name was expected, having been the staff ace most of the season and excelling to date in the playoffs. Eovaldi allowed just one run in 5⅓ innings in the Wild Card Game victory over the Yankees, then he stabilized the rotation and bullpen in the Division Series by holding the Rays to only two runs over five innings in Game 3.
In Eovaldi’s 32⅔ innings and eight career postseason appearances, he has a 1.93 ERA.
There was suspense over who would get the other start, given the poor efforts from Eduardo Rodriguez and Sale in the first two games against Tampa. Sale’s one-inning, five-run start was worrisome enough to turn an ace still recovering from Tommy John surgery into a dark horse for the Game 1 or possibly any game in this series.
For manager Alex Cora, the decision came down to bullpen usage, Sale’s recent improvements in his side work, and his overall track record.
”We feel comfortable with Chris with the rest that he got, and obviously giving Nate one more day is going to benefit,” said Cora. “It’s Chris Sale. At one point he had to pitch in this series, and we’re very comfortable with him going [Friday]. I think the structure of the series and the structure of our bullpen [Friday] is going to be, we’re going to be aggressive regardless. I don’t expect him to come out in the first inning.”
Ever the cagey skipper, Cora said “we’re not doing the opener thing” with his starter, then clarified to say “I mean, we’re not doing it [Friday].”
In eight postseason appearances, five as a starter, Sale has a 7.27 ERA in 26 innings. In the Red Sox’ 2017 ALCS loss, the Astros pounded Sale for seven runs in five innings in Game 1 at Houston, then for two runs over 4⅔ innings in Game 4 at Fenway. Sale improved some against the Astros in 2018, allowing two runs on one hit and four walks in four innings.
Given the sterling performances of long relievers Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck against the Rays, Cora has faith the Red Sox will be covered in case of any subpar efforts from any starter.
”Knowing that we have Tanner and we have Garrett [Richards] and we have Nick and we have Eduardo and these guys who — you know, Martín [Perez] — they can give us multiple innings. And it’s not just multiple innings. It’s quality innings and good matchups for us.”
(Richards, it should be noted, is not eligible for the series after having been removed from the Division Series roster due to a strained hamstring. He did play catch during the workout, and could return for the World Series should the Red Sox get there.)
Said Sale about Houck and Pivetta: “I don’t think that we can give those guys enough credit, honestly.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker did not sound as if Cora’s aggressive use of his bullpen in the postseason will influence his own decisions.
”If I was as concerned about what he is doing, then that would make me a counter-puncher versus a puncher, do you know what I mean?” said Baker. “I’m more worried about getting the max out of my team than I am what they’re doing over there.”
Changes to the mix?
Lefthander Darwinzon Hernandez, left off the Wild Card Game and Division Series rosters, is in the mix for making the ALCS squad.
”[The Astros’ hitters’] platoon splits, they’re not too different — their lefties hit lefties, and the righties, they hit everybody,” said Cora.
Hernandez was equally effective against righties (.202 against) and lefties (.204) this season.
The availability of Astros outfielder Jake Meyers, at least for Game 1, is up in the air. Meyers hurt his left shoulder on a catch during the Division Series. Potential Hall of Famer Zack Greinke is not stretched out enough to be considered for a start, but is in the reliever mix, Baker said.
The 26-man lineups for both teams need to be submitted by 11 a.m. ET.
On the mend
One other element of drama was resolved Thursday: J.D. Martinez and his sprained left ankle will be active for the series. ”It’s doing a lot better, the swelling has gone down a lot — I mean, night and day from what it was,” said Martinez, who hurt himself stepping on second base while jogging to the outfield in the final game of the regular season. “It obviously still hurts. You know, certain things, certain movements still bother it, but it’s a lot better than it was yesterday and the day before and the day before.” Martinez won’t be surprised or disappointed if he hits sixth, like he did in the last three games of the Division Series, rather than his customary third or fifth spot. ”Honestly, I think it’s better, I think being able to split righty, lefty, righty, lefty. Especially with Tampa and the team with Houston, a very analytic team, they’re going to be looking for the best matchups constantly. And I think they’re going to have to choose at some point if they want a righty to face [Alex] Verdugo or a lefty to face either me or Bogey [Xander Bogaerts], you know what I mean? They’ve got to bite the bullet somewhere” . . . First pitch for Game 2 is scheduled for 4:20 p.m. ET; the roof at Minute Maid Park will be closed, as it will be for Friday’s Game 1. For Game 3 at Fenway on Monday, first pitch is scheduled for 8:07 p.m.
Peter Abraham of Globe Staff contributed to this report.