As the American League Championship Series commences Sunday, one can easily construct a David vs. Goliath narrative between the pesky, small-market Tampa Bay Rays and the villainous, yet dominant, Houston Astros.
Those tropes, however, don't properly reflect this matchup.
If not for MLB expanding the postseason to eight teams per league, the Astros would have gone home in September. After eclipsing 101 wins in each of the past three seasons, they joined the Milwaukee Brewers (both 29-31) as the first teams to reach the postseason with losing records.
Although not a squad full of highly-paid household names, stellar depth and openness to innovative tactics made the Rays a trendy pick to flourish in this unprecedented season. They delivered, taking their place atop the AL standings by going 40-20.
Tampa Bay continued its not-quite-underdog tale by eliminating the New York Yankees in dramatic fashion. On the other hand, Houston thwarted efforts from the Oakland Athletics to dethrone a powerful division mainstay in the American League Division Series.
Per DraftKings Sportsbook, the Rays are favored to make their second World Series appearance in franchise history. They'll have a chance to open the best-of-seven series with a win behind a former AL Cy Young Award winner, but the matchup may work out for the 2017 and 2019 champions.
ALCS Game 1: Houston Astros vs. Tampa Bay Rays
When: Sunday, October 11 at 7:37 p.m. ET
Where: Petco Park, San Diego, California
Live Stream: TBS.com
Before besting the Yankees, the Rays dropped Game 1 when Blake Snell surrendered four runs to a lineup full of right-handed stars peaking at the hot time.
To commence the ALCS, the Rays will send out Snell to face a lineup full of right-handed stars peaking at the right time.
After years of placing near the top of most hitting leaderboards, Houston finished the 60-game season an underwhelming 14th in runs scored, 16th in OPS, and 19th in home runs. However, the Astros awoke in the ALDS to post 33 runs in a lopsided four-game series with the A's.
Carlos Correa finished the regular season with just five home runs in 221 plate appearances. He's already touched them all four times in 26 playoff appearances.
At age 26, the shortstop has already swatted 15 career postseason home runs. He's also a lifetime .289/.379/.480 hitter against southpaws, so Snell will have a tall task in silencing his scorching bat.
Correa isn't Houston's only All-Star infielder coming to life. A career .288 hitter, José Altuve notched an alarmingly low .286 on-base percentage during the season. He also has turned a corner in October, reaching base 12 times. The career .331 hitter against lefties has already taken Snell deep three times in 14 encounters.
This same problem, however, could exist on the other side. Astros manager Dusty Baker announced that Framber Valdez will get the Game 1 start. The 26-year-old lefty earned the nod by twirling a 1.42 ERA over his past four outings, including a pair of postseason gems.
And yet, per FanGraphs, the Rays finished sixth (16 spots ahead of the Astros) in weighted on-base average (wOBA) against lefties. Their unassuming group of right-handed mashers includes Mike Brosseau, who smacked the game-winning home run against Aroldis Chapman in Game 5 of the ALDS.
While the moment may have surprised some observers unfamiliar to the Rays, the platoon player has crushed lefties to a .313/.350/.589 slash line in 120 regular-season plate appearances. He deserves to start somewhere in Tampa Bay's infield.
Valdez will also have to contend with the hottest hitter in baseball, Randy Arozarena. After delivering seven home runs and a 1.055 OPS in September, the 25-year-old neophyte has gone 12-for-27 with two doubles, a triple, and three home runs this postseason.
Tampa Bay's offense has nonetheless run hot and cold in October, depositing seven or eight runs in three games but no more than three in four others. Even if casual fans are just learning of the likes of Brosseau and Arozarena, this is a capable lineup that will have left-handed mashers on the bench ready when Baker turns to his bullpen.
While Snell and Valdez could both stifle the opposition, each lineup is well-positioned to put up some runs. As is often the case, the outcome could come down to the final frames.
The Rays boasted the better bullpen during the season, but even if available, their top relievers may not be fully refreshed. In order to secure a Game 5 triumph over the Yankees, Nick Anderson, Peter Fairbanks and Diego Castillo each worked at least two innings Friday night.
Houston, meanwhile, could turn to Christian Javier for multiple innings if needed before handing the ball to Enoli Paredes and closer Ryan Pressly. By using Javier right out of the gate, the 23-year-old could then start later in the series rather than Valdez making another start on two or three days of rest.
Those young Astros pitchers keep the Rays in check just enough to secure a Game 1 win behind Correa, Altuve and their revitalized nucleus that has already manufactured many October moments. However, don't close the curtains on the Rays' run even if they fall short Sunday.
Prediction: Astros 5, Rays 4