By Bill Brown
The first challenge of the 2018 playoffs for the Astros brings the Cleveland Indians to Minute Maid Park to open a best-of-five Division Series Friday, October 5. The Indians have the same black cloud over them that the Astros exorcized in 2017 by winning the World Series. For Cleveland, 69 years have passed since last winning the World Series in 1948. Houston ended a 56-year drought in 2017. The Indians blew their chance in 2017 by losing three in a row to the Yankees after taking a 2-0 lead in the Division Series.
Cleveland romped to a 13-game margin in the American League Central, coasting to their third straight title with a 91-71 record on the strength of a dominant pitching staff and the bats of shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez. Ramirez moved to second base late in the season after the Indians traded for Josh Donaldson and installed him at third base. Ramirez and Lindor both lit up their seasons with more than 80 extra base hits.
The Tribe was led by four starting pitchers with 200 strikeouts or more; the Astros had three. Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander prepare to square off in the series opener after making strong Cy Young bids. The Astros led the majors in earned run average (3.11) and strikeouts (1,677 – a major league record). The Indians were fourth in the AL with a 3.77 ERA. Houston’s bullpen was vastly superior to Cleveland’s in the regular season.
Not that the season series provided strong indicators or anything of consequence, but the Astros were 4-3 against the Indians. All of those games came in a span of ten days. They have not played since May. The Astros hit well, scoring 45 runs in seven games and hitting .293. For instance, Jose Altuve blistered Cleveland pitching to the tune of .469. Yuli Gurriel’s average was .355. George Springer hit .323 against the Tribe.
Justin Verlander did not face the Indians during the regular season. They have given him fits in his career, with a career record of 20-24 and an ERA of 4.71 for the former Cy Young and MVP award winner against them. Charlie Morton went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA against Cleveland.
If the division series matchup brings pitching duels, the Astros’ 18-45 record when they score three runs or fewer does not offer tremendous encouragement. But as they proved in the postseason in 2017, past results do not guarantee future patterns. Baseball can be something like a financial prospectus when it comes to that relationship!
Playoff baseball brings a different style of managing, with much more urgency. Matchups are plotted carefully, and they help dictate roster makeup. Playoff experience matters, but dynamic young rookies can perform at a high level. Talent trumps experience in many cases.
The long haul has ended. Short memories, stomachs of cast iron and unwavering confidence will accompany the winner of this series for the advance to the ALCS. Although Boston won 108 games to lead the majors, the Red Sox will have all they can handle if they also advance.