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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