Red Sox

So it looks like this entire Red Sox season will be about finding a way to beat the Astros

So it looks like this entire Red Sox season will be about finding a way to beat the Astros

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

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Red Sox' Alex Verdugo bristles at notion of 'replacing' Mookie Betts

Red Sox' Alex Verdugo bristles at notion of 'replacing' Mookie Betts

Alex Verdugo has some big shoes to fill after trading places with Mookie Betts. Just don't tell that to Alex Verdugo.

The Red Sox right fielder was the only major-league-level player the Los Angeles Dodgers sent to Boston in their offseason trade for Betts and David Price.

Considering he and Betts play the same position, it's natural to wonder how Verdugo feels about taking over for one of the best right fielders in Red Sox history. 

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But after hitting two home runs and robbing a Blue Jays long ball in Boston's 5-3 win over Toronto on Friday, the 24-year-old didn't want to hear his name alongside Betts'.

"I’m not replacing him," Verdugo told reporters, via WEEI.com's Rob Bradford. "Yeah, he played here but this is a game. This is a business. He decided to go elsewhere. I’m not replacing him. That’s what you guys say; that’s what everybody else says.

"I’m going out there and playing right field. I’m playing my game. I don’t think about Mookie."

Verdugo views Betts as a "great player" who's "going to do a lot" for the Dodgers. But the fourth-year outfielder already seems tired of the comparisons to his predecessor. 

"It’s not a comparable thing. I don’t like comparing it," Verdugo said. "I don’t like when people bring it up, but obviously the nature of the trade, it’s going to happen. People are going to say it.

"I’m going to play my game, I’m going to go out there and compete and bring the energy that I bring. That’s how I’ve always been and I don’t care about shoes to fill, anything like that. I’m playing my game."

Verdugo indeed plays with an energy that's rare to find in Major League Baseball, and his stats to date are matching that energy: He's hitting .294 with three home runs, four RBIs and a .297 OPS through 11 games with the Red Sox.

Of course, Betts is enjoying a stronger start for the Dodgers: .307 with three homers, seven RBIs and a .983 OPS. But don't mention those numbers to Verdugo, who's out to define his own legacy rather than to try to soften the blow of Boston trading its franchise cornerstone.

Red Sox' Alex Verdugo robs home run, celebrates with awesome reaction

Red Sox' Alex Verdugo robs home run, celebrates with awesome reaction

Alex Verdugo made best play of his young Boston Red Sox career Friday night, and he was well aware of it.

With the Red Sox leading the Blue Jays by two runs in the ninth inning, Verdugo leaped in front of the right field bullpen at Fenway Park to rob Toronto's Travis Shaw of a home run.

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The play was impressive in its own right, but the 24-year-old outfielder punctuated it with a great reaction.

Verdugo's scream of celebration was audible on the game broadcast (even above the fake crowd noise), a sign of just how fired up he was about the catch.

"I would say I’ve never screamed like that before,” Verdugo said after Boston's 5-3 win, via the Associated Press. “I used to be a pitcher back in the day. I was pretty hyped up."

Verdugo had two other reasons to be hyped up: He also blasted a pair of solo home runs, giving him three on the young season and earning a spot alongside legendary left-handed slugger Mo Vaughn.

The Red Sox aren't expected to make much noise this season, but it appears the former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder will do his best to raise the decibel level.