Minute Maid Park grounds crew paint the baseball postseason logo on the field in Houston. | AP
The Astros won five of seven from White Sox this season, but this time the Sox’ lineup will be at full strength.
White Sox versus Astros is so many things:
A postseason perennial wannabe that won its first division in 13 seasons against a recent World Series champ going for its fifth straight trip to the ALCS, matchup of 70-something managers, a rematch of the 2005 World Series and a sometimes overlooked big-city team against one most infamously known as cheaters.
But once the memory of the Sox’ four-game World Series sweep in 2005, the 21 division titles, seven League Championship trophies and three World Series rings won between the 72-year-old Dusty Baker and 77-year-old Tony La Russa (the one with all the rings) and the black eye of the Astros sign-stealing scandal of 2017 and ’18 that hasn’t completely disappeared are peeled away, a rather evenly matched pairing is left to size up.
The Astros (95-67) are slightly favored over the Sox (93-69), who were 39-34 in the second half but won their weak division going away. Home field advantage, a debatable edge in baseball, tips to the Astros side. The Sox were 40-41 on the road and must play the first two games and a deciding Game 5 (if necessary) at noisy Minute Maid Park where they were swept in a four-game series in June. The Sox won two of three at Guaranteed Rate Field in July.
All it takes to negate the advantage is a strong start by Lance Lynn (probably) or Lucas Giolito, some timely hits by Tim Anderson, a 430-foot home run by Luis Robert and a shutdown ninth inning by AL Reliever of the Year candidate Liam Hendriks in Game 1. That would force the Astros to win the other two on their home turf plus split two games at a hostile, jacked up dressed-in-black Guaranteed Rate Field Sunday and Monday.
Lynn, though, is 5-7 with a 4.41 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) in his career, and La Russa is waiting until Wednesday to name him or Lucas Giolito his Game 1 starter. Lynn allowed six runs on eight hits and one walk while striking out six in four innings in one of his worst starts this season. The Astros clobbered Lynn, then a Texas Ranger, for 15 earned runs on 20 hits including five home runs over 11 2/3 innings in 2020.
But Lynn owns a sparkling 2.69 ERA, helping Sox pitchers to a No. 1 ranking in the major leagues in FanGraphs wins above replacement and strikeouts. The rotation of Lynn, Giolito, Carlos Rodon, Dylan Cease and Dallas Keuchel was its backbone, featuring an AL best 3.57 ERA, although Rodon, an All-Star, is not at 100 percent. But the Astros, a close second at 3.60, feature a stout top four with Game 1 starter Lance McCullers Jr. (13-5, 3.16 ERA), Game 2 starter Framber Valdez (11-6, 3.14), Luis Garcia (11-8, 3.30) and Jose Urquidy (8-3, 3.62).
The Sox rate an edge with a bullpen that ranks second in the majors (the Astros are ninth). The pen and starters will deal with an Astros offense that led the majors in runs, average and on-base percentage while boasting the lowest strikeout rate (19.4.) The Astros have the top two AL batting average leaders in Yuli Gurriel (.319) and Michael Brantley (.311), the major leagues’ top player in Baseball Reference wins above replacement in shortstop Carlos Correa and 31-homer second baseman Jose Altuve, and their second-best player per WAR is AL Player of the Month for September/October Kyle Tucker, who batted sixth and seventh in the lineup most of the season.
The Sox counter with a potent and (finally) healthy top six of Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada. Because of injuries, Robert and Jimenez will face the Astros for the first time. In one of encounter with the Astros, Brian Goodwin batted fourth. In another, the Sox started Jake Burger, Billy Hamilton, Seby Zavala and Danny Mendick. Only Hamilton has a chance of being on the postseason roster.
Defensively, the Astros are notably better, ranking second in the majors in defensive runs saved. The Sox were 26th, and have admittedly been “atrocious” at times defending the stolen base, La Russa has said.
“It’s a fact that they’ve had a lot of experience and made deep runs in the playoffs and that goes a long way. You’re not going to intimidate a team like that, you’re not going to put pressure on a team like that,” Grandal said. “And all they’re waiting for is for you to make a mistake and they’re going to take over. Hopefully, they make the mistake before we do.”
Prediction: Astros in five.
NOTES: La Russa was noncommittal about Carlos Rodon’s status for the ALDS. “Had a nice throw [Monday], looked OK [Tuesday]. So far, still under consideration. It’s a good sign.”
*Both teams will work out Wednesday at Minute Maid Park.