BOSTON -- Thoughts on a salvaged weekend at Fenway Park that nonetheless clearly established the Astros as World Series favorites . . .
Actually, let's start there: the Astros are very clearly World Series favorites.
Two years after their first title, they look determined to reclaim the throne. The hangover bug bit them last year, especially on the injury front, where mainstays like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve battled maladies all season.
They're healthier now -- although Springer left Sunday's game with back soreness -- and they're hungry, as they proved this weekend.
On Friday, Rick Porcello was dynamite until leaving two pitches over the middle of the plate in the eighth. Jake Marisnick ripped the first for a double, and Springer launched the second for a game-winning two-run homer.
On Saturday, the Astros scored five in the first off spot starter Hector Velazquez and cruised.
On Sunday, they worked Chris Sale for a career-high five walks, but let the Red Sox rally for a 4-3 victory.
They don't like how last season ended. They won 103 games before being knocked out of the ALCS in five games. Had Andrew Benintendi not saved Game 4 with a diving catch on Alex Bregman, there's no telling how the series might've ended.
"I've seen it a lot," Bregman said of the replay. "It's everywhere. It was as an incredible play. He's a great baseball player and he made a great instinctual play, aggressive."
The Astros looked like the more athletic team this weekend, whether it was chasing down balls in the gaps, stealing bases aggressively, or hammering mistakes.
They sent an unmistakable message in the process: You want to repeat as champions, you come through us. . . .
That said, Red Sox manager Alex Cora had a point when he noted that two bad innings cost the Red Sox dearly -- the eighth on Friday and the first on Saturday. The Red Sox otherwise played pretty well. They actually out-hit the Astros (25-23), and their pitchers recorded more strikeouts (23-18), too.
Houston was just a little more fundamentally sound. The Red Sox went 2 for 20 with runners in scoring position, while Houston went 6 for 24. Catcher Christian Vazquez failed to glove a perfect strike from Jackie Bradley Jr. that should've cut down a run at the plate, while Houston picked a runner off first.
There's not a ton separating the two teams, but there's enough. For instance . . .
Houston's lineup is outrageous and relentless. Sometimes the numbers can fool you, like during last year's ALCS, when the Red Sox identified Bregman as the primary threat. Even though Houston entered that series with a considerable offensive pedigree, injuries left it more dangerous on paper than in reality.
The Red Sox navigated the hot zones by pitching around Bregman and withstanding a great series from Springer, dominating the likes of Martin Maldonado, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel.
The holes those Red Sox exploited no longer exist. Reddick lashed two doubles off of Red Sox ace Chris Sale on Sunday after drilling an insurance homer on Saturday.
All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley already looks like the bargain of the offseason, hitting .324 with a .933 OPS in the first year of a two-year, $32 million contract. If we voted for MVP today, Springer would win, based on his .313-17-42-1.050 start. Correa has regained his pre-injury form, as evidenced by the 448-foot bomb he hit to dead center off Sale. Bregman's a stud. Catcher Robinson Chirinos is slugging over .500.
They're doing it all without Altuve, who's expected to miss the rest of the month with a hamstring strain. When they're at full strength, no team can touch them, including the Red Sox. . . .
Red Sox reliever Marcus Walden continued making a play for the high-leverage innings that a struggling Ryan Brasier is in danger of vacating. Cora inserted Walden into his toughest spot yet on Sunday and Walden delivered, inducing a bases-loaded double play to maintain a 3-3 tie.
"He's been kind of our unsung hero," Sale said. "You don't hear a whole lot, but we know internally what he's done. You look at his stuff, it's up there with anybody. It's disgusting. He throws strikes. Power guy with some really good stuff, so I was obviously really pumped seeing him running through the gates. I left him a mess and he did about as good as you could do to get us out of there."
Cora recently noted that he values relievers who can keep the ball out of play. He wants pitchers with the stuff to record strikeouts and induce pop-ups, and Walden qualifies, thanks to his slider. So does Matt Barnes (fastball-curveball) and to a lesser extent, Brandon Workman (curveball), who is also more walk-prone.
The comparative problem is the quality of stuff in Houston's pen. Reliever Ryan Pressly hasn't allowed a run since last August, cutter-and-curveball machine Will Harris owns a 1.15 ERA, and closer Roberto Osuna has surrendered just six hits and one run in 20 appearances.
The Red Sox aren't using a set closer, can't count on Brasier at the moment, and have to hope that Workman's curve remains borderline unhittable. That's a potentially huge edge for Houston, at least until the Red Sox start using their starters out of the pen in the playoffs. . . .
Do the Red Sox have a lefty problem? With right-handed hitters Steve Pearce and Eduardo Nunez each batting below .200, the Red Sox have been susceptible to opposing southpaws, which is yet another reason that rookie Michael Chavis has been such a godsend.
With the Red Sox being largely stymied by old friend Wade Miley on Sunday, Chavis launched a solo homer over everything that jump-started the game-tying rally. He'll have an everyday home in the lineup as long as he's hitting like this -- his eight homers in only 25 games already rank third on the team -- but the Red Sox could use more thump from their right-handed lineup.
Eduardo Nunez started Sunday hitting just .125 against left-handed starters, while World Series MVP Steve Pearce was stuck at .152. Add surprising struggles from Mookie Betts (.220) and Andrew Benintendi (.219), and the lineup has sprung some leaks vs. lefties that not even monster numbers from J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Chavis can counter. . . .
Speaking of Chavis, that kid was freaking adorable.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.