The stage is set for the American League Champion Series as the Boston Red Sox will take on the Houston Astros.
It'll be a rematch of the 2018 ALCS, when the Red Sox defeated the Astros in five games and went on to take down the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. That year, Boston won 108 games and entered the postseason as the AL's top seed. This time, it enters as an underdog many expected to miss the playoffs, never mind be one step away from another World Series berth.
With a resilient Division Series performance vs. the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox showed it would be foolish to count them out going forward. Still, there's no doubt they have their work cut out for them as they pack their bags for Houston. The Astros boast the best offense in the major leagues and a pitching staff that finished the campaign seventh in runs allowed. They're coming off an impressive ALDS showing vs. a young, talented Chicago White Sox club.
As we look forward to Friday's Game 1 showdown, here's a refresher on the 2021 Astros and what to expect from them in the best-of-seven series.
Astros to watch out for
The usual suspects: Alex Bregman (3B), Carlos Correa (SS), Jose Altuve (2B)
We're lumping Bregman, Correa and Altuve together as they're the faces of the Astros franchise, as well as the players Red Sox fans will be most familiar with heading into the series.
All three starred on the infamous 2017 Astros club that won the World Series and subsequently was disciplined for illegally stealing signs. They also were on the roster for the team's 2018 ALCS loss to Boston.
Bregman, a two-time All-Star, played in only 91 games this year due to injury. The 27-year-old hasn't been his MVP-caliber self these last couple of seasons, but he remains a serious threat at the plate. Two years ago, Houston's third baseman finished with 41 homers, 112 RBI and a 1.015 OPS.
Correa enjoyed a stellar 2021 season, hitting .279 with 26 homers, 92 RBI and a .850 OPS. Set to become a free agent this winter, Correa has plenty of postseason success on his resume. The 27-year-old shortstop has 17 homers and a .873 OPS in 66 career playoff games.
Altuve has played for the Astros for all 11 years of his MLB career, making seven All-Star teams in that span. The 5-foot-6 second baseman won the American League MVP award during the team's 2017 championship season. This year, Altuve bounced back from a rough 2020 season with 31 homers and a .839 OPS.
Yordan Alvarez, DH/OF
Alvarez arrived in Houston in 2019 and earned AL Rookie of the Year honors with 27 homers, 78 RBI, and a 1.067 OPS. Simply put, the 24-year-old slugger has incredible power.
Now in Year 3 of his MLB career, Alvarez hit 33 homers, 104 RBI with a .877 OPS during the regular season to maintain a reputation as one of the most feared hitters in the league. He was a Red Sox killer in 2021 with seven hits (three doubles, one homer) in 20 at-bats.
Michael Brantley, OF
Brantley is a 13-year veteran who, when healthy, is one of the game's best pure hitters year in and year out. The former Cleveland Indians standout is a five-time All-Star coming off his seventh season with a batting average of .300 or higher.
Brantley also owns a 15-game postseason hitting streak entering the ALCS. That's the longest such streak in franchise history and tied for the fifth-longest all-time, trailing only: 2003-04 Manny Ramírez (17 with Red Sox), 1998-99 Derek Jeter: (17 with Yankees), 1956-58 Hank Bauer: (17 with Yankees) and 1991-93 Pat Borders: (16 with Blue Jays).
Yuli Gurriel, 1B
Gurriel was part of the Astros' 2017 World Series roster and the one that fell to the Red Sox in the 2018 ALCS. The 37-year-old was a late bloomer, completing his rookie season as a 33-year-old in '17.
He's far from the biggest name on the lineup card, but make no mistake: Gurriel can present a real problem at the plate. He hit .319 this year to earn the American League batting title. He also can hit for power as two years ago he put together a 31- homer season.
Kyle Tucker, OF
Tucker, 24, didn't face the Red Sox during the 2018 ALCS but could be a real thorn in their side this time around. The Astros' first-round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft has become one of the team's most intimidating hitters, coming off a season in which he clubbed 30 homers and posted a .917 OPS. Tucker hitting sixth or seventh in Houston's lineup speaks to just how scary this offense can be.
Lance McCullers Jr., RHP
With Zack Greinke underperforming and Justin Verlander out for the year, the Astros needed someone in the rotation to step up. Lance McCullers answered the call.
McCullers enjoyed his best season yet in the bigs, posting a 13-5 record with a 3.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Walks are a real problem for the right-hander, however, as he walked a league-high 76 batters during the campaign.
McCullers has carried his impressive season into the playoffs. In two ALDS starts vs. the White Sox, the 28-year-old has allowed only one run in 10 2/3 innings pitched and led his team to wins in both games. It's worth noting he exited Tuesday's Game 4 with forearm tightness.
Ryan Pressly, RHP
Pressly has been one of the game's best relievers since entering the league with the Minnesota Twins in 2013. The two-time All-Star notched 26 saves with Houston this season to go along with a 2.25 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. In the 2018 ALCS vs. Boston, Pressly allowed one hit and one run while striking out four in 2 2/3 innings.
Jake Meyers, OF
Meyers played 49 games with the Astros in 2021, so he'll still be considered a rookie next season. The 25-year-old hit .260 with six homers and a .761 OPS and saw some success at the plate in the ALDS, going 3-for-7 with two RBI in the two games he saw at-bats. In Game 4, he exited with a shoulder injury after a violent collision with the wall.
Luis Garcia, RHP
Garcia went 11-8 with a 3.30 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP during his rookie season this year. The 24-year-old righty pitched well in his lone start vs. Boston this season, allowing only one run on five hits in seven innings.
Cristian Javier, RHP
Another name Sox fans may be unfamiliar with as he wasn't on the 2018 Astros club, Javier debuted for Houston in 2020 as one of the team's top prospects. The 24-year-old appeared in 36 games this season and made nine starts, amassing a 3.55 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 101 1/3 innings.
Kendall Graveman, RHP
Graveman began the 2021 season in Seattle and was shipped to Houston at the trade deadline. The 30-year-old was one of the best relief arms in baseball with a 1.77 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. His production dipped a bit after the trade, however, as his WHIP ballooned to 1.39 with Houston and his ERA shot up to 3.13 in 23 games.
Ryne Stanek, RHP
Red Sox fans might recognize Stanek from the right-hander's tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2017-19. The 30-year-old joined the Astros in 2021 and was solid out of the bullpen with a 3.42 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 72 appearances (68 1/3 innings pitched).
Baker took over as Astros manager in 2020 after A.J. Hinch was fired as a result of the team's sign-stealing scandal. The 72-year-old has a significant edge over Alex Cora in playoff experience as he's one of only six managers ever to reach the postseason 10 times. Baker hasn't won a World Series as a manager, however.
In 3,722 games managed with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Astros, Baker owns a 1,987-1,734 record (.534). He is 31-37 (.456) for his career in the playoffs.
Numbers to know
The number of runs scored by the Astros in 2021 to lead the majors.
Yordan Alvarez's jersey number, a sight Red Sox fans probably won't enjoy seeing in the series.
The number of runs allowed by Lance McCullers Jr. in his two ALDS starts vs. the Chicago White Sox combined.
Yuli Gurriel's batting average in 2021, which made him the second player in Astros history to win a batting title.
The number of times the Red Sox beat the Astros in seven games during the regular season.