Red Sox

Rolling Red Sox meet rampaging Astros in early battle for AL supremacy

Rolling Red Sox meet rampaging Astros in early battle for AL supremacy

BOSTON -- Best two out of three?

The Red Sox and Astros have won the last two World Series titles -- each eliminating the other along the way -- and if the last month is any indication, they'll both be right there again this October.

Houston owns the best record in baseball. The Red Sox have won 14 of 19. Both teams were built through a combinations of player development, shrewd trades, and free agent strikes, though the Red Sox boast a considerable financial advantage, while the Astros benefited from a cluster of top-10 picks.

The squads open a three-game series at Fenway Park on Friday for the first of six games in 10 days that should provide a rare opportunity in the competitively imbalanced American League. If the Red Sox want to know how they stack up with the elite, the next week and a half should provide an answer.

The Red Sox believe they've righted the ship after starting 3-9 and 9-15. They're coming off a walk-off win over the Rockies and have surged over the last month, from the return to form of dominating ace Chris Sale, to the emergence of rookie slugger Michael Chavis, to the breakthrough of third baseman Rafael Devers.

But the Astros haven't gone anywhere, either. After battling the fatigue of trying to defend last season, they're rolling. They've won eight straight and rank in the top three of virtually every offensive category and have been boosted by the re-emergence of dynamic shortstop Carlos Correa, the continued brilliance of third baseman Alex Bregman, a turn-back-the-clock performance from oft-injured outfielder Michael Brantley, and a monster start from AL home run and RBI leader George Springer.

The Red Sox will miss second baseman Jose Altuve, who's likely to miss the rest of the month with a hamstring strain. But the Astros lucked out, too, since left-hander David Price, who dominated them in last year's American League Championship Series clincher, won't return from left elbow tendinitis until next week in Toronto.

The Astros are as complete a team as the Red Sox will face. They rank second in the American League in both runs (245) and ERA (3.52). They boast a legitimate ace in Justin Verlander (7-1, 2.38) and a dominating closer in Roberto Osuna (0.49 ERA, 10 saves).

Setup man Ryan Pressly hasn't allowed a run in 37 innings dating back to last season. No. 2 starter Gerrit Cole leads the AL in strikeouts (86). Promising prospect Corbin Martin, who will start on Saturday, just won his debut by striking out nine in 5.1 innings vs. the Rangers.

Six regulars bring OPS's of over .900 into the series, led by Springer (.320-16-40-1.051), who's making an early Triple Crown push, and Bregman (.270-14-34-.957).

The Astros bring all of that and more to Boston this weekend before hosting the Red Sox next weekend. They've got revenge on their minds after losing the ALCS in five games, including the clincher on their home field.

Anyone who believes the Red Sox put the Astros in the rearview mirror for good last season should think again. Houston remains the most serious threat to Boston's crown, and it's easy to envision one of these clubs hoisting its second trophy at the expense of the other five months from now.

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Mookie Betts is smoking hot and could reach a milestone only two others have seen in 70 years

Mookie Betts is smoking hot and could reach a milestone only two others have seen in 70 years

BOSTON -- We all agree that Mookie Betts is having a so-so year. He didn't deserve to make the All-Star Game, he hasn't carried the Red Sox like he did a year ago, and his production is down across the board.

And yet, if he continues on his current pace, he will score more runs this season than all but five players in the last 70 years.

If that's a down year, then sign the Red Sox the bleep up.

With so much attention on Rafael Devers maturing into a destroyer of men, we've managed to overlook one of the most significant developments of the last month -- Mookie is very quietly getting hot again.

He blasted his first homer of the month as part of a torrid July that has seen him hit .431 with 18 runs in 11 games. Those runs are important, because they're the one part of Betts' game that has not suffered a whit.

He leads the majors with 86 runs in 95 games, and at his current pace would finish with 145. With a little bit of luck, he could join Jeff Bagwell with the 2000 Astros and Ted Williams with the 1949 Red Sox as the only two to reach 150.

The way Devers is going out of the No. 2 hole, there's an outside shot the leadoff man will become only the 20th player ever to reach that 150 mark. As it is, he just joined Teddy Ballgame in the franchise record books for most consecutive games with a run at 13.

"I mean, yeah. I think when anybody scores, good things happen," Betts said. "But I think you need somebody to kind of get on base in front of Devers and (Xander Bogaerts), I think it's a good chance I'm going to score."

Betts is now hitting .284 with 14 homers and 44 RBIs. That's a far cry from last year's batting title, but as manager Alex Cora noted, Betts has taken his walks all year, which suggests a solid approach. His on-base percentage stands at .399, and nowadays every baserunner in front of the scorching Devers represents an RBI opportunity.

"Aw, man. It's been a lot of fun," Betts said. "I have one job and it's just to get on base and let him kind of take care of the rest. So it makes my job a little easier. Obviously I may get a couple more pitches to hit because nobody wants to face him and that's part of the game."

Since moving to the No. 2 hole on June 25 and pairing with Betts atop the order, Devers has been playing on another level. The 22-year-old is hitting .397 with seven homers and 25 RBIs in 17 games, his OPS pushing 1.300.

Betts has been of the primary beneficiaries.

"It's been a long season, but things are kind of coming around," Betts said. "It seems I've learned what not to do."

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Chris Sale finally wins at Fenway Park and leaves Red Sox with reasons for optimism

Chris Sale finally wins at Fenway Park and leaves Red Sox with reasons for optimism

BOSTON -- Over the last year, Chris Sale has made all manner of starts at Fenway Park. He has allowed five runs and he has allowed zero runs. He has struck out 17 and he has struck out one. He has pitched with playoff seeding on the line and nothing at all at stake. He has dazzled and he has disappointed.

The one thing he hadn't done, until Thursday afternoon vs. the Blue Jays, was earn a win.

It's hard to believe that one of the best pitchers in Red Sox history could own such an ignominious record, but here it was — no one had made more consecutive starts at Fenway Park (13) without a victory than Sale.

The Red Sox had won five of them anyway, including two when Sale went at least six innings without allowing an earned run, so it's not like he had pitched terribly. Wins are context-dependent and not necessarily an accurate reflection of a pitcher's performance. But come on — we're talking about Chris Sale! For him to go more than a year between Fenway victories (his last coming on July 11, 2018 vs. the Rangers) is practically unfathomable.

The Sale who ended that streak on Thursday may not have looked exactly like his vintage self, particularly as he searched to find his fastball velocity and command in the early innings. But he produced vintage results over six shutout frames, striking out 12, hitting 96 mph late, and putting an end to a run of futility that was beginning to make him wonder when the madness that is his underachieving 2019 season would end.

"I think this year has just kind of been all over the place," Sale said. "I've been as bad as I've ever been in my career and I've also had some of the best games I've ever had in my career this year. So it's one of those things, it's more confusing than anything. Kind of all over the map. You go out there, and 17 strikeouts, complete-game shutout and then games when I'm not even getting out of the fourth inning. It's just more confusing. I feel like there are times when I'm racking up strikeouts but I'm also sitting there in a five-run hole. It's like one thing but not the other, or two things, but not the third one. It's just about doing it all at the same time and getting the results you need."

Facing a Blue Jays team that had pounded him in three previous starts this season, including the home opener, to the tune of a 7.98 ERA, Sale varied his pitch mix with electric results. His fastball sat at 91-92 mph in the early innings while he relied extensively on a sweeping slider and darting changeup. He struck out the side in the first and had 12 Ks through five.

As the game wore on, his velocity increased, too, nearing 97 mph on his final strikeout of the game to end the fifth. With the Red Sox comfortably leading 4-0, he was lifted after 101 pitches and the bullpen brought it home without incident for once.

And just like that, Sale finally could call himself a winner in Fenway Park.

"Long overdue," he said. "Nobody else to blame but myself, but obviously glad to get this one out of the way and now we can just focus on what's ahead and keep the ball rolling and have a happy flight, get on the plane and get down to Baltimore and start off on the right foot down there."

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