Nine thoughts on the 111-win Red Sox’ showdown with the 106-win Astros in the American League Championship Series . . .
1. Not sure why so many Red Sox fans — a majority, certainly, and a vocal one — are so down on Alex Cora’s decision to start David Price in Game 2 Sunday night. Price gave up just three hits and three runs in his last start! What more could you want? Not everyone can be Nathan Eovaldi, you know.
Oh, all right, so some numbers can’t be spun. Price, as you may have heard, got just five outs and gave up a pair of homers in the Red Sox’ 6-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. It was their lone loss, and one frustrating enough that an awful lot of fans among us were skeptical that the Red Sox would return home again after heading to the Bronx for Games 3 and 4.
They were sort of right, in a backward way: The Sox didn’t come home for Game 5. They didn’t have to. Price’s performance was pretty much the lone lowlight of the series, though Craig Kimbrel’s Houdini act in Game 4 wasn’t exactly a thrill either even though the outcome was rather satisfying.
2. The general reaction to Cora’s decision to start Price in Game 2 is bewilderment, and the only reason it is not flat-out anger is because the Red Sox manager is batting awfully close to 1.000 in his decision-making this postseason.
That’s one reason I’m OK with this decision, and would not be surprised if Price pitches well. OK, let’s make that adequately — say, 6 innings and 3 runs, a so-called quality start. I don’t want to set the bar too high given Price’s brutal postseason record. In 18 appearances and 10 starts, he’s 2-9 with a 5.23 ERA and — say it with me — both wins came in relief. He’s 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA as a starter. That’s hard to do.
Another reason I semi-believe in this decision? His playoff foibles mask another truth that should be cause for at least some tempered optimism: He had a good season (16-7, 3.58 ERA, 122 adjusted ERA, meaning he was 22 percent better than the average American League pitcher). And he was downright terrific in the second half (6-1, 2.25 ERA in 11 starts).
3. That regular-season success — which provides far more recent and relevant data than, say, a bad start in October 2010 — should count for something. I’m not guaranteeing he will pitch well. Heck, I wouldn’t make such a guarantee even for Chris Sale in Game 1 against the stacked Astros lineup. I’m just saying it’s more of a possibility than anyone is acknowledging right now.
Besides, you know Cora, the anti-Aaron Boone, will have a quick hook with him. And if Price is an early disaster, there could be an interesting Plan B in play.
4. Price was outstanding in two relief outings against the Astros in last year’s ALDS, pitching 6⅔ shutout innings over two games. Wouldn’t shock me that if he has a short and ugly night of work Sunday, his role for the remainder of this series could be shifted to match what it was a year ago — the relief ace who comes in to bridge the middle innings in a close game, or even one who comes in later to get key outs in high-leverage situations.
Go ahead and doubt him. It’s not like he’s earned trust as a starter so far. Just don’t write him off as a contributor. It might be hard to remember now, but Price got cheered at Fenway last year for his work against the Astros.
5. The Astros that get the most national attention, in order, are probably Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Correa, and that’s understandable. All three could have plaques in Cooperstown someday, though Correa’s injury history is starting to get worrisome.
But their best player this year — and so far in October — has been 24-year-old third baseman Alex Bregman, who is actually six months older than Correa but until this year was considered the Astros’ less-established young star. Bregman led the Astros in home runs (31), OPS (.921), Wins Above Replacement (6.9), while mashing a league-best 51 doubles.
He’s established himself as a legit superstar this season — he should finish in the top five in the MVP voting — but he is already all too familiar to the Red Sox. He hit a pair of home runs off Sale in last year’s ALDS, including a tying solo shot in the eighth inning of Game 4, eventually won by the Astros to end the series.
Altuve is greatness in a small package, George Springer is an October beat, but Bregman is the most terrifying Astro of all right now when he digs in to the batter’s box.
6. It’s interesting to note, and something of a what-if, that Bregman was once a Red Sox draft pick. He was chosen in the 29th round in 2012 out of his Albuquerque, N.M. prep school.
Bregman was a presumed first-round pick entering his senior year, but missed much of the season with injuries, including a broken finger. He made it clear before the draft that he wasn’t going to sign unless he was a first-round pick or got first-round pick money. He later said he probably would have signed had the Red Sox taken him with the 24th overall pick. The Red Sox did not, instead selecting — yikes — Deven Marrero. Bregman ended up going to Louisiana State University instead.
Three years later, Bregman was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, behind Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson. He can’t have any regrets, but the Red Sox could be excused if they had a few.
7. Mookie Betts, slashing .188/.316/.250 in 19 plate-appearance this postseason, is overdue for a big playoff moment. He still does not have a postseason home run in his career, in 11 games and 49 plate appearances.
But it would be silly to be worrying about him if you’re actually watching.
Betts did have a couple of ugly swings in Game 4 of the Yankees series in which he looked like he was trying to chop down a tree, but he also led off Games 3 and 4 with absolute rockets to center field and had nothing to show for it but a couple of F-8s in the scorebook. He just needs one of those to drop in — or better yet, to clear the fence. Bet it’s coming, and soon.
8. Question: If the Red Sox season ends in this round, will you remember it fondly?
Barring a catastrophic ending, I think it must be remembered well, even if the ultimate goal of a fourth World Series title since 2004 goes unachieved.
The Red Sox won 108 regular season games — there were prolonged stretches when it really did feel like they won every day — and wiped out the Yankees in a thoroughly satisfying way.
There would be true disappointment, but absolutely no shame, in losing to the defending World Champions. Should that happen, would it ruin all the good times that came before? I’d hope not. This team was a fun companion through the summer, and it broke the Yankees in the fall.
Winning the championship is of course the ultimate culmination, and one that would make the Red Sox team arguably the greatest in franchise history. But if the culmination doesn’t come, I’ll never lose appreciation for what this team did accomplish.
9. Prediction? Can I wait on this until after Game 2, when we know what version of Price showed up? No, it doesn’t work that way? Rats.
OK, reluctantly and with about 50 caveats that I won’t bore you with, I’m going Houston in 7. They’re the defending champs, they’re healthy for the first time in a while, they’re rolling (they went 21-6 in September, then wiped out the Indians in three), and they have a distinct pitching advantage in both quality and depth.
The Red Sox are truly great. The Astros might be just a little greater. But then, Game 7 would be at Fenway, and Cora knows Houston inside and out, and . . . oh, man, this is going to be epic, isn’t it?