Every great rivalry begins like this. And this, at the moment, is the best baseball has to offer.
In 2017, Houston beats Boston in a four-game Division Series on its way to a championship. The Red Sox respond by hiring Houston’s bench coach as their new manager. In 2018, that manager’s team wins a five-game AL Championship Series on its way to a championship. (Doing so with J.D. Martinez, whom Houston cast off after three middling seasons.)
Houston had 204 wins in 2017-18. Boston had 201. They’ve essentially split their last 23 games (Houston, 12-11), including their nine postseason ones (Boston, 5-4). Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts are the last two AL MVPs. You can not ask for much more in a competitive sense, especially if you like your rivalries built on mutual respect.
“You can break down the series however you want … they won games. And we were in those games and we had opportunities,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said after October’s ALCS. “When you get two evenly matched teams up against each other, there’s going to be swings in momentum and big at-bats and a little bit of luck, a little bit of bad luck.”
Sports create runs like this from time to time. The Red Sox played Division Series against the Angels in 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2009, Mike Scioscia’s team good for running into a critical out at some juncture. There was genuine dislike between the Rays and the Red Sox around the same time. There were three straight Division Series with Cleveland in the ’90s, preceded by the two ALCS in three years against Oakland.
Most don’t have the staying power to become Red Sox-Yankees, a generational battle that survives the ebbs and flows of players and regimes. In this time of parity and salary suppression and the ruthless pursuit of cheap talent, Sox-Astros probably won’t either.
That’s a longer-term issue. Right now, a team with an eight-game winning streak and the best record in the majors is coming to face one that’s won 6 of 7 and 9 of 11. Houston had 49 runs and 14 home runs in its last five. Boston has 28 homers in its last 14. Friday’s Houston starter Gerrit Cole leads MLB with 86 strikeouts. Sunday’s Red Sox starter Chris Sale has struck out 59 of 125.
“Obviously, we’re on a good stretch where we’re playing extremely well and tough to beat,” Hinch told reporters after a sweep in Detroit.
The Red Sox come into this at less than full throat. Both David Price and Nathan Eovaldi remain on the shelf, necessitating Hector Velazquez (or another fill-in) for Saturday against Corbin Martin, Houston’s No. 4 prospect who won his debut against Texas on Sunday. This series begins a hellacious stretch of 34 games in 34 days; the Sox play 17 straight, are off June 3, then play 17 more in 16 days thanks to a June 8 doubleheader/makeup with Tampa.
All six games against Houston come in the next 10 days. They host Cleveland and Tampa. They travel to New York. If not a season-defining stretch, it will be one where any number of statements can get made.
And to be clear, nice as it is that they’re missing Justin Verlander (and his 4.9 hits allowed per nine innings), they’re hardly catching the Astros at an opportune time.
- Alex Bregman, who in October embraced the villain role that makes this stuff even more fun, in May: Nine home runs and 20 RBIs.
- George Springer in May: Seven home runs and 16 RBIs.
- New guy Michael Brantley this season: .329 with a .575 slugging and 10 home runs.
- Josh Reddick, of all people: Tied with Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco with an AL-best .333 average.
“It’s like I’m a fan,” old friend Wade Miley told the Houston Chronicle. “They should charge us ticket prices to sit where we sit and get to watch this.”
It was truly kind of the Bruins to clear the weekend stage, because this figures to be everything you could want. As the Red Sox reacted after 2017 to build themselves that extra step, Houston did this winter. The intrigue, to me, is in the differing paths Boston used to get to this duel.
Houston famously averaged 108 losses from 2011–13, then lost 92 more in 2014. That added Carlos Correa (whose .944 OPS and 152 wRC+ somehow makes him only Houston’s fourth-best hitter) and Bregman to Springer (No. 11 overall in 2011) and Jose Altuve (undrafted free agent in 2007). You can do that in Houston, where the team’s games were on a network that no one got for years. Years.
The only top pick in Boston’s top-line arsenal is Andrew Benintendi, who went No. 7; Sale, Price, Martinez, and Porcello were all free agents, Mookie Betts was a fifth rounder …