Sunday night the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays will open the best-of-seven American League Championship Series at Petco Park in San Diego. The Astros knocked off the Athletics in four games in the ALDS while the Rays outlasted the Yankees in five games. .
The ALCS is of course a rematch of last year's ALDS. The Astros beat the Rays in five games last year en route to their second American League pennant in three years. Gerrit Cole was the difference in last year's ALDS. The Astros-turned-Yankees righty allowed one run in 15 2/3 innings in two postseason starts against Tampa. He struck out 25.
"I think that we're better this year than we were last year," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier told reporters, including MLB.com's Juan Toribio, on Saturday. "And also, I know they have a lot of talent over there still, but they don't have Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander, and we definitely like that."
The Rays went 40-20 and had the American League's best record during the regular season. The Astros went 29-31 and would not have reached the postseason without the expanded 16-team format. That said, Houston is playing much more like the 2017-19 Astros than the 2020 regular season Astros right now. They are dangerous.
Here are four factors that will help decide the ALCS, in no particular order.
1. Tampa's righty arms vs. Houston's righty bats
The Rays showed us the blueprint to beat the Astros in ALDS Game 5 against the Yankees. New York has a very right-handed heavy lineup and Tampa smothered them with power right-handed arms all game long. Four Rays pitchers held the Yankees to one run (on a solo homer) and three hits while striking out 11.
The Astros have a righty-heavy lineup as well. Their top two lefty bats are Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker, who are quite dangerous, and that's about it. Josh Reddick has been a non-factor for two years now, really, and utility players Garrett Stubbs and Abraham Toro don't figure to factor into the ALCS much, if at all.
There are way more righty pitchers than lefty pitchers in baseball and, as a result, the Astros and Yankees had the lowest rate of plate appearances with the platoon advantage during the regular season:
- Astros: 43.2 percent
- Yankees: 43.8 percent
- Braves: 44.7 percent
- White Sox: 47.3 percent
- Blue Jays: 47.5 percent
MLB average: 53.8 percent
The Rays held the Astros to 19 runs in the five-game ALDS last year and their pitching staff is even more right-handed now because Peter Fairbanks has emerged as a trusted late-inning option. Fairbanks essentially replaces lefty Colin Poche, who is out with Tommy John surgery, in manager Kevin Cash's Circle of Trust™.
Don't sleep on sidewinding righty Ryan Thompson either. He struck out 25.6 percent of the right-handed batters he faced this year with a 55.6 percent ground ball rate. The Rays used him as an opener in Game 4 of the ALDS and could do the same against the Astros, who typically have five righties in the top six lineup spots.
Last year the Astros got nothing from George Springer and Carlos Correa in the ALDS. They went a combined 6 for 40 (.150) in the five games. Those two are 18 for 47 (.383) with six home runs in six postseason games this year. Tampa's ability to shut Springer and Correa (and Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman) down with their parade of righties will go a long way toward deciding the ALDS.
2. Lowe snapping out of his slump
During the regular season second baseman-slash-outfielder Brandon Lowe was Tampa's best position player. He hit .269/.361/.554 with 14 home runs in 56 games and likely received MVP votes. This postseason though, Lowe has been the weak link in the Rays offense, even if it hasn't stopped them from advancing.
Lowe is 2 for 26 (.077) this postseason and the two hits came in his first five at-bats, so he's riding an 0 for 21 slump, and was 0 for 18 with seven strikeouts in the ALDS. The Yankees attacked him with elevated fastballs and Lowe kept swinging through them.
"None whatsoever," Cash told reporters, including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, when asked about dropping Lowe from his usual No. 2 spot in the lineup prior to ALDS Game 5. "Brandon is going to come up big for us. He's getting close."
The Rays have won without Lowe contributing because Randy Arozarena has been on a warpath and others like Mike Brosseau, Austin Meadows, and Mike Zunino has chipped in timely homers. Tampa is hitting only .217/.295/.434 as a team this postseason though. They Rays will need more offense than that to beat Houston and Lowe snapping out of his funk would go a long to way.
3. Greinke's status
The Astros and Rays were both hit hard by pitching injuries this year. Tampa lost three members of its pitching staff to Tommy John surgery (Poche, Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos) plus others like Jose Alvarado (shoulder inflammation), Andrew Kittredge (elbow sprain), Brendan McKay (shoulder surgery), and Chaz Roe (sore elbow), yet the team keep winning.
Houston is without Verlander, who had Tommy John surgery late last month, and closer Roberto Osuna, who is trying to avoid Tommy John surgery himself. Trusted veteran relievers Chris Devenski (elbow surgery) and Brad Peacock (shoulder surgery) are out as well. This series is as much about who is unable to pitch as it is who is actually on the mound.
Amid the injuries, Zack Greinke was to be the Astros' reliable workhorse, and he was for much of the season. He is now dealing with a sore arm though, something that surely contributed to the 5.73 ERA he posted in his final seven regular season starts, and the five runs he's allowed in 8 2/3 laborious postseason innings. Instead of being the postseason ace, Greinke's been a liability.
"Greinke is ailing some. He didn't say much about it, but it's pretty evident the last three or four starts that he wasn't himself," Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters, including MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger, last week. "... He has some soreness in his arm. He went to see the doctors and we don't have the results yet."
Baker said that before Greinke started ALDS Game 4 last Thursday -- tests revealed no structural damage -- and allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings. The Astros could push Greinke as far back as Game 5 (if necessary) of the ALCS on Thursday, giving him a full week between starts. He was included on the team's ALCS roster -- there was chatter he could be replaced -- indicating the Astros expect him to help in some capacity.
It's hard to expect the great version of Greinke to show up in the ALCS just based on the last few weeks though. Pitchers typically don't battle a sore arm and get rocked for over a month, then magically go back to normal a week later. There's usually an injured list stint involved. The difference in the ALCS could be Greinke giving the Astros something rather than nothing.
4. Dusty's bullpen management
If you're still criticizing Baker for running Mark Prior and Kerry Wood into the ground, you're still in the stone age. Dusty has shown he is a great postseason bullpen manager in his last few stints, and it has been evident again this October, when he used Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier as relievers in the Wild Card Series, and mixed and matched the A's into submission in the ALDS.
Javier, 23, pitched to a 3.48 ERA in 10 starts and two relief appearances during the regular season, but he's been used exclusively in relief this postseason. He's made three appearances and struck out eight in 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Javier might be Baker's most trusted reliever behind closer Ryan Pressly at the moment. He's consistently pitching in high-leverage situations.
There will be no off days in the ALCS, however, so the Astros and Rays could play seven games in seven days. That means the two managers will have to run their bullpen differently, and it also means they will need to use at least a fourth starter, and perhaps even a fifth starter depending on their willingness to use starters on three days rest. That could push Javier into the rotation.
"We're leaning towards him (as a) reliever, but I can't tell you everything," Baker told reporters, including MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, earlier this weekend. "They don't need to know all our plans, we don't know their plans."
Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. will start Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS, respectively. Jose Urquidy is an obvious candidate to start Game 3. Game 4 is currently up in the air because of Greinke's arm soreness. Game 5? Who knows. Javier's role is uncertain but he will be a factor in the series one way or the other.
Beyond Javier, Baker has done fine work putting righty Enoli Paredes in positions to succeed this postseason -- he's retired all 11 men he's faced -- and Paredes would take on increased responsibility should Javier move into the rotation. Javier, Pressly, and Paredes are Houston's most trusted end-game relievers right now.
Massaging the rest of this patchwork bullpen (lefties Blake Taylor and Brooks Raley, righties Josh James and Andre Scrubb, etc.) during this seven games in seven days stretch will be of paramount importance in the ALCS. That goes for the Rays as well, though Tampa's pitching staff is a bit deeper. Baker has a young bullpen and will need a deft touch.