Ten thoughts on the American League Championship Series with the Red Sox needing to win two straight in Houston ...
1. The Astros have been here before. In the 2019 World Series, they won three straight in Washington after dropping the first two at home. They returned to Houston needing just one game, but the Nationals won them both.
It helped having World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg in Game 6, but neither contest was competitive. After outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Washington, Houston dropped the final two games by scores of 7-2 and 6-2.
The Astros lost at least two straight at home to the same team six times this year, most recently in August to the Twins.
2. If the Red Sox devote even one joule of energy to the pursuit of whistling, then they'll lose Game 6 and deserve it. The "evidence" of the Astros cheating on Yordan Ventura's game-breaking hit in Wednesday's Game 5 was highly dubious, to say the least.
For those who missed it, some intrepid social media users highlighted a whistle as Chris Sale delivered the first-pitch fastball that Alvarez laced into the left field corner in the sixth inning.
I found similar whistling between pitches, during pitches, after pitches, and even when the Red Sox were batting. Ballparks are loud. People whistle.
If the Red Sox focus on what got them here, they can win this. That means blocking out this particular outside noise. Let the Astros whistle. The Red Sox need to go to work.
3. Here's what worries me about big-game Nate Eovaldi: The Astros solved him in a must-win moment of Game 4, turning the series on its head in the process. They'll carry that confidence into Friday night.
While it's fair to note that Eovaldi had Jason Castro struck out if only home plate umpire Laz Diaz hadn't blown the call, it's also important to add that the pitch wouldn't have mattered if Eovaldi hadn't surrendered a leadoff double to Carlos Correa. Nor should it excuse the RBI single and walk that followed.
Eovaldi faced six batters on Tuesday, and four of them reached. The Astros should be able to take some confidence from that.
4. We sell Dusty Baker short. Yes, he's never won a World Series. And yes, he's only reached the Fall Classic once. But he has taken every team he has ever managed to the playoffs, and only the Cubs failed to win 90 games on his watch, topping out at 89.
He made one of the key tactical decisions of the entire series when he sent Jose Altuve in the sixth inning vs. Chris Sale in Game 5. First baseman Kyle Schwarber saw Altuve round second on Michael Brantley's chopper and took his eye off the ball, committing the error that opened the floodgates. Hate the Astros all you want, but if they advance, you should at least feel good about rooting for Baker to win his first title at age 72.
5. The key player for either team in Game 6 could be Astros reliever Cristian Javier. The 24-year-old right-hander is the one multi-inning weapon in Baker's bullpen, and he has been nails this postseason, with 13 strikeouts in 7.2 shutout innings.
He has pitched twice in this series and the Astros won both games, with his three innings of shutdown relief in Game 4 giving Houston's bats a chance to overcome an early 2-1 deficit.
Javier isn't the only Houston reliever to pitch well in this series, giving Baker an unexpected edge over counterpart Alex Cora in the bullpen. Right-hander Kendall Graveman has tossed three shutout innings, righty Phil Maton has allowed just one hit in 3.1 frames, and closer Ryan Pressly is an All-Star.
6. Speaking of relievers, what happened to Tanner Houck?
Once considered Cora's perfect weapon, he has thrown only one inning in this series. It might have something to do with his recent performance, which has included three home runs allowed in his last three innings. It could also trace to Houston's lineup, which includes tough left-handers Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, and Kyle Tucker.
Either way, it's strange that we've seen more of Darwinzon Hernandez, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Martin Perez in this series than Houck.
7. The Red Sox bullpen as a whole worries me. Cora has had to mix and match all season while riding hot hands. For a time, his three prime relievers were Hernandez, right-hander Adam Ottavino, and closer Matt Barnes.
Hernandez is now basically a mop-up guy, Ottavino has reappeared after being marginalized for most of the stretch run and ALDS, and Barnes isn't even on the roster.
Cora has few reliable directions in which to turn. Ryan Brasier has been rocked recently, Hansel Robles isn't the same guy who dominated September, and even Garrett Whitlock couldn't protect a lead in Game 4. Of all the concerns heading into this weekend, the bullpen rates even higher than the offense for me.
8. We're only just now getting to the offense? The Red Sox have suffered from hero ball in close games all year, but the start of the playoffs had seen them shift away from a pull-happy approach in favor of taking what they were given.
What a time to abandon a successful formula. The Astros have pitched them in more effectively the last two games, opening the outside of the plate. But the Red Sox don't help themselves when they futilely try to pull sinkers off the plate, as they did against left-hander Framber Valdez in Game 4.
Their offense is at its worst when they try to win the game with one swing. Their two wins demonstrated the effectiveness of simply putting runners on base and making Houston's starters sweat.
9. If I have to pick one player to ride in Game 5, it's Rafael Devers. He's the best hitter on the team, he's likely to hit with runners on base, and he owns the most complete all-fields power in the lineup (followed closely by J.D. Martinez).
His grand slam salted away Game 2 and he's got three home runs in the series. Whereas the Astros can control Kiké Hernández by pitching him away and forcing him to hit the ball to right field, Devers can take them out to any part of the park.
10. Talk to me if they lose, but I'm having a hard time mustering up the outrage to call this series a choke. The Astros won 95 games and were the better team all season. This is their fifth straight ALCS. They know what they're doing and playoff comebacks are nothing new for them.
The Red Sox? Their roster still feels a bit like the island of misfit toys. Credit to Cora for making it work, but if this is the end of the road, there's no shame in this series or season.