The World Series champion Houston Astros launch their pursuit of another American League title on Saturday against the Red Sox in Boston in a mouthwatering clash of the two best teams in Major League Baseball.
The Astros won a club-record 103 games in the regular season — but they still couldn’t match the major league-leading 108 games won by the Red Sox.
Their astonishing 211 combined wins are just one shy of the record for a pair of post-season combatants — the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres had totalled 212 regular season wins in 1998 when they clashed for the World Series crown.
The National League Championship Series, meanwhile, features two of the hottest teams in baseball in the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The ALCS marks just the third time since the wild card round was introduced in 1995 that the top two regular season teams will meet in a league championship series.
Alex Cora, the rookie manager who guided the Red Sox march through the regular season, honed his bullish approach in Houston, where he was alongside Astros manager A.J. Hinch as bench coach last season.
The Red Sox snapped up Cora after sacking John Farrell in the wake of Boston’s AL division series loss to Houston last year — an abrupt end to the campaign that the Red Sox are surely keen to avenge.
“They have a good team,” Cora said of the current Astros after his Red Sox ousted the New York Yankees in the division series on Tuesday.
The Astros were already waiting, having swept the Cleveland Indians in three games of their division series.
“What they did to the Indians, that was impressive,” Cora said. “They can pitch. They’re playing good defense. They’re swinging the bat well. They’re a complete team.
“So now we go — best of seven. They know me. I know them. It should be fun.”
The powerful Astros lineup includes 2017 AL Most Valuable Player Jose Altuve along with this season’s MVP contender Alex Bregman, George Springer and Carlos Correa.
In the three games against Cleveland Bregman boasted an astonishing .556 batting average with two home runs and four runs-batted-in.
The Red Sox bring plenty of power, too, with MVP candidate Mookie Betts — batting .346 with 32 homers and 80 RBIs — and J.D. Martinez providing a one-two punch at the top of the lineup.
– Streaking Brewers –
The Astros appear to have the edge in pitching with ace Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the top of a rotation that also includes Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel.
Verlander gets the ball in game one against Red Sox ace Chris Sale.
The Dodgers and Brewers get underway on Friday in Milwaukee.
The Brewers have won 11 straight, out-scoring opponents 80-34 in that span as they snatched the NL Central division title from the Chicago Cubs. Their sweep of the Colorado Rockies marked the Brewers’ first playoff series win since 2011 and buoyed hopes of a first World Series title. They fell in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 in their only prior trip to the Fall Classic.
Unlike the unexpected Brewers, the Dodgers are right were they were expected to be, but not before some sputtering in the regular season threatened their return trip to the World Series.
The Dodgers now appear to be firing on all cylinders, winning seven of their last eight.
“It’s going to be great,” Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado said. “We’re just going to go out there and play baseball, be ourselves, keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, and hopefully we come out on top.”