Last October, a wounded Red Sox team arrived in Houston confronted with what seemed like a clear roster disparity. They were a good team — a team that withstood a raft of injuries to win 93 games and the AL East — facing a potentially great one.
Over four games, the perceived gap remained intact, with the Astros jump-starting their championship run with a convincing win over the Sox in the Division Series.
Now the Red Sox get their first opportunity to return to Houston this season. They hadn’t exactly circled the dates, and they insist that a midyear series isn’t a measuring stick of a team with World Series aspirations.
Nonetheless, with the best record in baseball — a 39-17 mark that has been bettered through 56 games in the last 15 years only by the last two World Series winners — Red Sox players acknowledge an excitement to compete again with the team that ended their 2017 season.
“It’s going to be an exciting series,” said reliever Matt Barnes. “I think everybody wants another shot at them. They’re the defending champions. It’s them, and we’ve got to go in there and show them that we mean business.”
While all but a few current Red Sox were on last year’s playoff roster, several players suggested that the team that flew to Houston Wednesday night is very different from the one that visited the city last October. That sense begins with an atmosphere created by new manager Alex Cora and his staff that is distinct from the one a year ago.
“It’s just a different dynamic,” said outfielder Mookie Betts. “We’ve got new guys. Our outlook on things is a little bit different this year. We just go and play and don’t worry about the rest. Internally, we feel really confident, whoever we play against. That’s the main difference.”
“There’s a lot of things that are different now,” agreed starter Rick Porcello. “We have a lot of the same guys, but it’s a different feel in the clubhouse this year. Right now, at this point in the season, we have a lot of confidence. We honestly believe that we can beat anybody as long as we play well.”
In terms of the roster, the free-agent addition of J.D. Martinez put one of the top sluggers in the game into the middle of the lineup. Additionally, whether due to improved health or revised offensive approaches, several other members of the team are driving the ball in a fashion far beyond what they proved capable of last year. The Sox are looking increasingly like a team that features the same sort of top-to-bottom explosiveness that characterized last year’s Astros.
A team that stood out for its lack of power last year is instead crushing the ball this year, with 82 homers through 56 games representing a franchise record.
“Any time you can add a guy like [Martinez] to the middle of your lineup, you know it’s going to lengthen it and make it that much more dynamic as a group,” said first baseman Mitch Moreland. “[But] I think everybody in here felt like they could improve on what they did last year as well. I think you’re kind of seeing that in action right now.”
The Red Sox starting staff appeared to be running on fumes last October. David Price proved dominant during the postseason, but he was relegated to a relief role after missing much of the year with arm injuries. Now the lefthander is eager to take the ball Saturday, joining three pitchers (Drew Pomeranz, Chris Sale, and Porcello) during the series who were jumped by Houston’s lineup.
“I look forward to it now,” said Price, “not so much for the reason that I wasn’t able to last year, but it’s an opportunity for me to go out there and be great against a very good team, the reigning World Series champions that made really good additions this offseason to make their team even better.
“Everybody who is going to get a start there is looking forward to that start. We all know that these four games are going to be talked about for a while, heavily anticipated.”
The Astros, too, are different. Their offense has been very good rather than historically good thus far, but with Justin Verlander (acquired last August) and offseason acquisition Gerrit Cole being the two most dominant AL pitchers to date, Houston entered Wednesday with a 2.58 ERA — the lowest by an AL team through 56 games since the 1973 introduction of the designated hitter.
“We understand who we’re facing, who is pitching,” said Cora, the bench coach for last year’s Houston team. “We all know that. It should be fun.”