Justin Verlander, Powerful Astros Offense Win Game 1 of ALCS vs. Red Sox

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2018

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 13:  Lance McCullers Jr. #43 of the Houston Astros celebrates after retiring the side in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox in Game One of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on October 13, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The Houston Astros now hold home-field advantage in the ALCS.

The Astros stole Game 1 on the road, dominating the Boston Red Sox 7-2 behind Justin Verlander's six innings of two-run ball. George Springer was excellent, knocking in two runs and getting on base three times, while Carlos Correa's RBI single in the top of the sixth was the game-winning hit.

The Astros added four insurance runs in the top of the ninth on Josh Reddick's solo home run and Yuli Gurriel's three-run shot.

Unlike Verlander, Red Sox starter Chris Sale struggled, throwing 86 pitches in four innings while giving up two runs, four walks and a hit. It was a poor performance from Boston's ace, forcing manager Alex Cora—who was later ejected in the bottom of the fifth for arguing balls and strikes—to turn to his bullpen early.  

It was the Astros bullpen that locked down the contest, however, pitching three scoreless innings to close Game 1.

             

Chris Sale's Struggles Could Have Ripple Effect Throughout Series

Sale did not have his best stuff Saturday night, and it was apparent early: 

The fact that he got through four innings while only allowing two runs made it seem like the Red Sox dodged a bullet. But Boston had to turn to its bullpen for the next five innings in a game it likely expected its ace to go deep. That could be a concern for the rest of the series, especially if Boston's other starters struggle. 

The last thing the Red Sox want is a taxed bullpen while facing Houston's dangerous lineup.

Sale's struggles mean David Price must come up big in Game 2 on Sunday night. That has not been Price's postseason calling card, however. In 18 appearances (10 starts), Price is 2-9 with a 5.28 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 68 strikeouts across 75 innings.

More concerning is the fact that Price only lasted 1.2 frames in his ALDS Game 2 loss against the New York Yankees, giving up three runs on three hits and two walks. And it's not as though the Red Sox can let him weather any storms, as opposing starter Gerrit Cole is coming off an excellent season and is likely to make life difficult for the Red Sox bats.

If Price struggles early, he'll almost assuredly be given a quick hook. And that would mean another long night for the bullpen. 

Should the Red Sox go down 2-0 in this series while facing a trip to Houston, they'd be in trouble. It wouldn't be fair to call the matchup over—the Red Sox won 108 games, after all, and boast baseball's scariest lineup. They could dig out of that hole.

But it's not a hole they'd choose, especially considering the Astros seem to have Sale's number.

Houston's beaten Sale three times in the past two postseasons, and the Boston ace hasn't gotten past the fifth inning in any of those starts, giving up a total of 11 runs in the three losses.  

Add it all up, and Sale's Game 1 effort does not bode well for the Red Sox. 

                   

Houston's Bullpen Remains Its Biggest ALCS Advantage

Houston's starting rotation often gets most of the attention when the team's pitching is mentioned, and for good reason: The trio of Verlander, Cole and Dallas Keuchel is superb. Verlander, in particular, has been historically good in the postseason.

But Saturday night, Houston's bullpen was dominant, proving it remains the team's major advantage over Boston. 

During the regular season, Houston led baseball in bullpen ERA. In 12.2 innings of postseason ball, they've given up one run. The Red Sox managed just one hit against Ryan Pressly, Lance McCullers Jr. and Collin McHugh on Saturday night.

Boston, meanwhile, was forced to cycle through five relievers over five innings, and that group gave up five runs, including the two ninth-inning dingers.

This series has been billed as the matchup of the unstoppable force (Boston's lineup) against the immovable object (Houston's pitching staff). But Boston has solid options in the starting rotation, even if Sale struggled on Saturday night, and the Astros have dangerous bats. The "unstoppable force vs. the immovable object" storyline is a bit reductive.

Look more closely, and it's clear the bullpens could decide this series. In that regard, the Astros appear to have the advantage. 

                                     

Red Sox Need Mookie Betts to Get Hot

Mookie Betts, the front-runner to win the AL MVP, only hit .188 against the New York Yankees in the ALDS. No matter. The rest of the Red Sox offense showed up, pushing 27 runs across the board in four games.

But Betts had a limited impact once again Saturday night, managing just one hit without any runs scored or knocked in. And against Houston's superior pitching staff, the rest of the Red Sox weren't up to the task either, only posting three hits.

In fact, Boston's two runs came off a bases-loaded walk and a wild pitch by Verlander. It was an ugly night for the Red Sox at the plate.

And it's been an ugly postseason for Betts, who hit .346 with 32 homers, 80 RBI, 129 runs and 30 stolen bases during the regular season. He was a major factor in every conceivable way for the Red Sox. He's been much less so in the postseason.

For his career, Betts is hitting .239 with no homers, two RBI and six runs scored in 46 postseason at-bats over the past three years (12 games). His October struggles are a worry, especially given Boston's issues with solving Houston's pitchers Saturday night. 

The Astros' stars, meanwhile, mostly factored into the Game 1 result. In a series between teams this talented, the Red Sox have to get something from their best player. If Betts doesn't work his way out of this October slump, his team is in trouble.

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