For a team that always expects to be playing deep into October, it’s been a grind for the Houston Astros this season. They have been streaky offensively, fought through some key injuries, and needed some help from a division rival to sneak in the back door to win the AL West. That’s a bit unusual for a club that will now play in a seventh straight championship series, plus four World Series appearances and two winning trophies during that span.
Houston’s good fortunes came at the expense of the vastly improved Texas Rangers. Both teams finished the season with records of 90-72, but the Astros owned the tiebreaker by beating the boys from Arlington nine times out of 13 games. So, while the Astros drew a bye, the Rangers had to prevail against the Tampa Bay Rays and the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles to stay alive. The Astros held serve by edging the pesky Minnesota Twins, but it seems only fair that these two Texas teams, who don’t like each other very well, battle it out for a World Series berth.
This ALCS series features some interesting sidebars, starting with the team’s veteran managers. The Astros skipper Dusty Baker, who was 73 last season, became the oldest dugout boss to ever win a ring in modern day history. On the flip side, the Rangers 68 year old Bruce Bochy was lured out of retirement to direct a team that hadn’t made the post season since 2011. It was a challenge but Texas GM Chris young, who pitched for the San Diego Padres when Bochy ran the team, was a convincing factor.
“It just felt right to me,” admitted Bochy, who won it all three times with the San Francisco Giants.
Another intriguing development occurred in the pitching department during the dog days of late summer. The Rangers dominated early on, although scuffled a bit after the All Star break. The Astros likewise were hot and cold. Both clubs were looking to buy before the August 1st trade deadline and the underachieving New York Mets, with baseball’s highest payroll, were looking to sell. The results seemed lucrative when Houston dealt for their former ace Justin Verlander, and Texas made a swap for Max Scherzer. It took a while for both hurlers to find their footing, but Justin won some big games in the stretch run. That was not the case for Mad Max, who ended up on the IL with a muscle strain near his right shoulder.
While both teams have decent starting pitching and deep bullpens, I believe this showdown will be an offensive slugfest, and that favors the Astros. There’s no team with a lineup that can match Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Jose Abreu and Michael Brantley. Even Chas McCormick, Jeremy Peña (last year’s WS MVP) and catcher Martin Maldonado can produce at the plate with some frequency. Then again, Texas deserves respect with Corey Seager, Josh Jung, Marcus Semien, Adolis Garcia and their underrated receiver Jonah Heim.
The troubling X factor here for Houston is their right fielder Tucker, who led the league in RBI’S but whiffed six times in 14 plate appearances against the Twins. I keep telling him to quit pulling his head, but to no avail. Semien, the Rangers high dollar second baseman, has also had a sub par post season. As for the studs, Alvarez and Seager have been lights out for their respective squads.
I honestly believe the difference in this series though, could lie with the above mentioned veteran pitchers. Verlander, 40, is a three time Cy Young Award winner and still at the top of his game. The 39 year old Scherzer has the same number of Cy Youngs and like Verlander, is the ultimate competitor. And Max, to nobody’s surprise, wants a piece of the action.
“I’ve checked all the boxes I possibly can and I’m ready to go,” reports Scherzer, who has not pitched in a game since September 12th.
If Scherzer is added to the Rangers roster, even if he only starts one game, it would be a small moral victory for his team. And I’m pulling for Bochy, a good guy I’ve known since his Padre days. That said, I’m picking the Astros to take this series in six games. These guys have been there and done this many times, and know how to clutch up in the playoffs.