Gut reaction to Red Sox-Astros right after Houston dispatched the White Sox on Tuesday: Astros in five.
More educated prediction after digging into the numbers and getting a better feel for Houston's strengths and weaknesses: toss-up.
The Red Sox have a legitimate chance to win the American League Championship Series, ladies and gentlemen. These clubs are basically mirror images with dominating offenses trying to prop up ailing pitching staffs.
Houston hammers the ball. The Red Sox hammer the ball. Forget about Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts. The series may very well come down to Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek.
Those are just some of the pitchers who'll be picking up pivotal innings as baseball moves away from the dominating starter model to the let's-use-six-relievers model. One of these teams is going to capitalize. Unless Nathan Eovaldi is pitching or Astros ace Lance McCullers returns from an arm injury to start one of the middle games, we should be in for a high-scoring series.
"It's a great team," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora of Houston. "Complete team. Obviously, there's certain guys that I know that we worked together before, but they added some great players last few years, like (Michael) Brantley. He is one of the best hitters in the big leagues.
"Obviously, pitching-wise, they're a lot different than the past. Throughout the season, they did a good job just staying on top of the West in a tough division with the Mariners and A's. And there's a reason they're here. They're very well managed, and Dusty (Baker) has done this since he became a manager with the Giants back in the day in Candlestick Park. For him to still be around and have the energy to do it is impressive. And it should be fun."
The task for the Red Sox is obvious. After a Wild Card game vs. the Yankees that required them to worry about only two batters (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton), and an ALDS vs. the Rays with similar parameters (Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco), the Astros present the inverse challenge.
The Astros lineup runs seven and maybe even eight deep. With the exception of catcher Martin Maldonado and whomever they're playing in center, there are no easy outs. They led the league in runs for a reason.
This is a marked change from the 2018 ALCS, won by the Red Sox in five games, when the names looked impressive but not the output. In that series, the Red Sox treated All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman like kryptonite, walking him seven times in five games and pitching to him with runner on base basically never. A notable exception: the final out of Game 4, a Craig Kimbrel fastball that Bregman drilled to left with the bases loaded. Andrew Benintendi made the signature play of his career with a diving catch, denying the Astros a walk-off win.
Bregman and the since-departed George Springer were the only dangerous hitters in that series. Stalwarts like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa played hurt, and the Red Sox had no problem pitching to Maldonado, Josh Reddick, and Marwin Gonzalez, among others.
There are no such breaks now. The Astros just scored 31 runs in four games vs. the White Sox, pounding the No. 2 staff in the American League. Altuve matched a career-high with 31 homers this season. Correa guaranteed himself a massive payday in free agency with 26 bombs. Bregman hit .375 in the ALDS after missing two months with a quad injury. Yuli Gurriel and Brantley went 1-2 in the batting race. Former No. 5 overall pick Kyle Tucker exploded with 30 home runs. DH Yordan Alvarez led the team with 33 homers and 104 RBIs.
As if that's not enough, the Astros were the toughest team in baseball to strike out (19.4 percent) and the only club not to whiff at least one-fifth of the time. You want a challenge, this is it.
"They lost George (Springer) and at one point we thought he was the leader of the pack," Cora said. "He was the guy that ignited the offense and was the emotional leader of the team, and they're still playing good baseball and here they are. They're here in the ALCS, so it's a testament to what they did in the past with the people that used to run that team and obviously what they're still doing right now."
How are the Red Sox supposed to compete with that, you might ask? Well, all hope is not lost, because Houston's pitching staff scares no one.
Ace Justin Verlander is recovering from Tommy John surgery that limited him to one start last year. Fellow Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke battled neck issues down the stretch, returned for Game 162, and is now being used in relief. The oft-injured McCullers left the clincher vs. the White Sox with a sore forearm and there's no word on his status.
So while the Red Sox try to figure out how to fill in around Eovaldi, the Astros may end up doing the same with left-hander Framber Valdez, who dominated the Red Sox twice within the span of a week in June (2-0, 1.26), but hasn't faced them since.
He got lit up by the White Sox in their only win of the ALDS, and doesn't possess the pedigree of Eovaldi. No one on the Astros staff does, and that includes a healthy McCullers, with Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy the other likely starters.
The task for Baker will be maneuvering to his best bullpen arms, including former Mariners closer Kendall Graveman, All-Star Ryan Pressly, and perhaps the key pitcher to the entire series, Maton.
The only lefty in their bullpen in the ALDS was Brooks Raley, with Blake Taylor left off that roster but a possibility for this one. Instead of a specialist, they prefer Maton, a righty with reverse splits who limited lefties to a .233 average. He'll likely get the call against Kyle Schwarber, Alex Verdugo, and Devers. That's a tall order and an area the Red Sox could exploit.
And that's why this series could go either way. Houston probably possesses just a little more firepower, but either staff could very easily go supernova, in which case all bets are off except this one -- take the over.