After a travel day Saturday, both American League Division series of this year’s MLB playoffs resume Sunday in new locations.
Led by their dominant offense, the Houston Astros look to sweep away the Chicago White Sox in Game 3 while the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox head to Fenway tied 1-1.
What are the keys to each series from here? What are the Game 1 and 2 moments we’re still buzzing about? And who do we predict will meet in the ALCS? We asked some of our ESPN MLB experts to weigh in on where things stand and what will happen next.
How can the White Sox get back in their series with the Astros?
Buster Olney: The lineup is capable of putting up big, crooked numbers for the White Sox, and in this moment, that’s what they need — other White Sox joining Tim Anderson in mashing hits. A big fly by Jose Abreu early in Game 3 would be the kind of jump-start they need.
Jesse Rogers: Tony La Russa recently said he would never tell his club it had to sweep a series but that’s what his team is needing in order to advance. If he can drill it down to just one game — Game 3 — the White Sox can get back into it because Sunday’s contest is winnable. It’s their first home playoff game since 2008, so there’s pent-up energy among the fanbase and the Sox can make young Astros starter Luis Garcia very uncomfortable. Chicago Game 3 starter Dylan Cease has stuff that rivals anyone in the AL, so there’s no great drop off on the mound for the home team.
Joon Lee: Jesse is spot on. The White Sox need a strong outing from Cease to help set the tone for a comeback. The numbers prove this out. According to research from 2017 by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, the vast majority of comebacks from 2-0 deficits started with a dominant performance from their starters, with a combined ERA of 1.63 among nine starters.
David Schoenfield: Going home, where the White Sox went 53-28 compared to 40-41 on the road, will help, but I do wonder if we’re seeing what many suspected — that the White Sox cruised in a weak division. They went 10-16 against the four other AL playoff teams, including 2-5 against the Astros, so they’re now 2-7 against Houston. A big key: Who will La Russa trust out of the bullpen and, most notably, will he trust Craig Kimbrel? The White Sox do have a deep pen that had the second highest strikeout rate in the majors, but Kimbrel has been the primary setup man to Liam Hendriks even though he has struggled since coming over from the Cubs and he gave up those two big hits in Game 2. It feels like the White Sox need a dominant Kimbrel (and Hendriks) to pull out this series.
Which team has the edge now that the Red Sox and Rays are tied 1-1?
Olney: The first two games illuminated the problems that Alex Cora has been dealing with in his rotation, with Chris Sale’s velocity down significantly and the depth of the bullpen being tested. The Rays are the better and more talented team. However: Cora is excellent in a situation like this, finding solutions, finding heroes. Like Tanner Houck in Game 2. And his willingness to yank E-Rod and Sale quickly in the first two games is an indication he could effectively use those two as openers, especially against a Tampa Bay lineup that mashes right-handers, and use the depth of his staff, which is predominantly right-handed. The Red Sox have a puncher’s chance to win this series.
Rogers: I started thinking the Rays still had the advantage, then remembered how good Nathan Eovaldi was in the AL Wild Card game at home. I say he rides that wave to another good start and Boston takes the lead in the series.
Lee: A slight edge to the Rays. The team’s depth is so outstanding and I think will shine through the rest of the series after Boston needed Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck to turn in long performances out of the bullpen.
Schoenfield: The Rays, but it’s close with Big Game Nate on the hill in Game 3 for the Red Sox. The Red Sox love to hit at Fenway — they had the best home OPS in the majors — and they now have to feel confident about facing the back half of the Tampa Bay bullpen after the Game 2 explosion. Drew Rasmussen has been lights out since joining the Tampa Bay rotation with a 1.46 ERA over his final eight starts, but he’s also topped out at five innings, so Kevin Cash is still going to need at least four innings from his bullpen and his circle of trust has probably narrowed by a few pitchers. The Red Sox, however, might be scrambling in Game 4 — it could be Eduardo Rodriguez on short rest — and then if there’s a Game 5, does Alex Cora go back to Chris Sale? In the end, I still have more faith in the Rays’ pen than Boston’s, and that gives them the edge over these final three games.
Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo, Kike Hernandez, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers all hit home runs in the Red Sox’s 11-6 win vs. the Rays.
What has surprised you most so far?
Rogers: It’s hard to ignore the White Sox starters getting beat up in Houston. Lance Lynn looked like anything but a Cy Young candidate while Lucas Giolito gave up four runs in less than five innings, though two scored after he left the game. This was the strength of the team all season and it came up short in two starts in Houston. Lynn’s throwing 97% fastballs to the best fastball-hitting team is still perplexing a few days later.
Olney: The defense of the Astros, although I shouldn’t be — they finished second in the majors in defensive runs saved. But Carlos Correa has been excellent and so has Jose Altuve, squeezing the White Sox offense.
Lee: Boston’s bullpen has held up better than expected through the first two games of the series. The Red Sox have gotten strong performances out of Tanner Houck, Ryan Brasier, Hansel Robles, Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes. If Boston wants to make it out of the first round, the bullpen will prove crucial.
Schoenfield: Kiké Hernández tied all-time postseason records with five hits and four extra-base hits in one game. I don’t think anybody had that on their list of postseason predictions. In the big picture, we’re learning that Boston’s offense has been underrated all season and is perhaps strong enough to carry this team to a title.
Can anyone stop this Astros offense?
Rogers: It’s going to be hard to win in Houston. They can be tamed on the road but in Texas, teams will need to outscore them, especially when anyone not named McCullers is on the mound.
Lee: The White Sox pitching staff will need to take a quick turn into looking more like how they did during the regular season to stop the potent Astros offense.
Schoenfield: They led the majors in runs for a reason. With Yordan Alvarez healthy again after missing last postseason and Kyle Tucker now a force, the Astros have more left-handed pop then they’ve ever had, so the right-left balance is a huge key that makes this lineup so difficult to navigate. It will take a Herculean performance to shut it down.
What’s the best moment of the ALDS so far?
Olney: How about a collection of moments: Hernandez’s incredible Game 2, leading the Red Sox comeback. Five hits in six at-bats, 3 doubles, a home run. Part of the reason why they wanted him last winter was for his postseason experience, the accumulated toughness he has, and they got some serious return on investment Friday night.
Rogers: I’ll be vote No. 10000 for Randy Arozarena stealing home with a LEFT-HANDED batter at the plate. Was awesome.
Lee: I’m going with Arozarena too. I don’t know if the cowboy boots gave him superpowers, but these are the kind of moments that make postseason baseball special.
Schoenfield: Please, a straight steal of home? That’s a memory for the ages.
Four games in, who are your ALCS picks?
Rogers: Houston is an easy one right now, for good reason. The Astros don’t have a weakness and have a 2-0 lead with Game 5 at home in their pocket if need be. Boston is showing that Alex Cora resiliency. To get down and roar back for a blowout in Game 2 is a momentum shifting moment in the series. Boston rides the wave to the ALCS.
Olney: I’ll stick with the Rays and Astros. And the Rays are still the team to beat.
Lee: I’ll take Houston and Tampa Bay. I think Houston will be able to pull out one of the next three games and Boston’s lack of pitching staff depth will ultimately come back to bite the Red Sox.
Schoenfield: I had Rays in five and Astros in four in my original picks, but I’m going to Rays in five and Astros in three. Look for Luis Garcia to spin a gem for the Astros in Game 3 and those right-handed power relievers to shut the door on Chicago’s righty-heavy lineup.