October 6, 2017 – Division Series Updates, Previews

Here’s a free excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, which rounds up the early action in the two ALDS series and looks ahead to Friday’s NLDS openers.

Astros 8, Red Sox 2 (Game 2: 2:00 PM ET Friday)

The difference in this game was Houston’s ability to hit the ball to (and over) the walls, and the Red Sox’s inability to do the same. In the preview of the series I threw together for Baseball Prospectus, the thing I tried to draw out was that Boston is a little underpowered, by 2017 standards. They had some really good at-bats on Thursday. Even in Justin Verlander’s 1-2-3 first inning, Andrew Benintendi took him to a full count and fouled a few pitches straight back. They’re a team that can get on base and hit line-drive singles all day, if the defense permits. The Astros’ defense performed well in Game 1, though, and that left Boston without a clear path to scoring enough runs to win.
It turned out that “enough runs to win” was a pretty big number, anyway. Chris Sale simply wasn’t fooling the Astros on Thursday. That’s not really a sign of Sale faltering or failing under the heat of the playoff lamps (though it’s worth noting that he scuffled even down the stretch of the regular season, and has done so in a majority of his big-league seasons), but rather, a reminder that the Astros are an incredible offensive team. During the first half, it looked like they might score 1,000 runs for the year, and although they fell far short of that in the end, that sheer excellence was no mirage. With more or less the whole lineup healthy, no one can contain this group, especially because no one can keep them in the ballpark all night. Even in the few games that have been played so far, we’re seeing that power is going to carry the month. The ball has not been un-juiced, and the home run remains the most reliable way to score runs. 
John Farrell did his team no favors, of course. Sale yielded two runs in the first (back-to-back home runs by Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve), and two in the fourth (two hard-hit doubles sandwiching a hard-hit single), and one in the fifth (another Altuve homer), and still, Farrell sent his ace back out to the mound in the sixth inning. Sale departed after allowing a double by Evan Gattis (which left the bat at 107 miles per hour) and a walk to Josh Reddick. Joe Kelly let in both runners before the frame ended, and the blowout was on. 
I’m not sure Sale should have taken the mound in the fifth. That was when the lineup card turned over, giving the Astros a third look at him. That was Farrell’s chance to put the game in the hands of a bullpen that has overachieved all season, and that has recently gotten better with the additions of previously shelved Carson Smith and David Price. He missed the opportunity, and then he missed it again after Sale allowed the homer to Altuve and retired the side in the fifth. 
On the other side of the field, A.J. Hinch was admirably proactive. Farrell’s decision to keep pushing Sale smacked of desperation, of a manager afraid to put a game that already looked in danger into the hands of anyone else. Hinch, on the other hand, looked at the Astros’ considerable lead after six frames and pulled Justin Verlander in favor of Chris Devenski. If the series goes to a fifth game (or if the Astros simply play deep into this month), Hinch can rest assured that his ace has an extra few bullets in his arm, That also prevented any high-stress moments the rest of the way, as Houston’s bullpen made easy work of the Red Sox.
Losing the Sale start seems to all but seal Boston’s fate, however premature that might sound. In Game 2, they send out Drew Pomeranz, whose peculiar season I documented a little over a month ago, and who has had another reversal of fortune even since then. Dallas Keuchel gives the Astros a big edge in that matchup, and if it’s 2-0 going into a Game 3 in which the Red Sox will start Doug Fister, Dave Dombrowski might as well hop on a flight to Nippon Ham and start wooing Shohei Ohtani, because the series will be over.
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