HOUSTON -- While all eyes will focus on Astros right-hander Justin Verlander when he takes the mound on Thursday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox at Minute Maid Park, what makes Houston a viable World Series threat is the offense set to support its new ace.
What gives the Astros, champions of the AL West, the presumed edge over the AL East champion Red Sox is a lineup that led the majors in batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.346), and slugging percentage (.478).
Houston not only finished second in home runs with 238, but it complemented that power by striking out in only 17.3 percent of plate appearances, the lowest mark the big leagues.
Verlander, 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA following his trade-deadline acquisition from the Detroit Tigers, will attack his 17th career postseason start with his usual intensity and commitment to perfection. But the Astros are capable of providing the cushion needed for Verlander (7-5 with a 3.39 ERA in the postseason) to be less than perfect yet still thrive.
"There's a lot of different things in there that made this offense click," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "And to do it for six months in and do it relatively consistently, and obviously at the end of the season lead in a lot of different categories, it's part of what makes us a good team."
Boston left-hander Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90 ERA) earned the opportunity to be first up in attempting to stymie the powerhouse Houston offense. He has enjoyed dizzying career success against the Astros, going 5-1 with a 1.31 ERA over six starts while producing 65 strikeouts against five walks over 48 innings. After 260 regular-season games, Sale will make his first postseason start.
Acquired from the Chicago White Sox last offseason, Sale provided Boston everything it envisioned when the organization opted to swap four prospects, including highly regarded infielder Yoan Moncada, for his services. He produced a campaign worthy of AL Cy Young Award consideration, and he excelled fronting a rotation that failed to meet lofty preseason expectations.
"Wow, he's been unbelievable since Day One, not only just, obviously, the stuff he has on the mound but his presence in the clubhouse," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "The way he attacks every day, he's always trying to get better. He's a pretty special guy to play with, and we're pretty excited to have him out there on the mound."
The Red Sox will be as excited to have Pedroia and third baseman Eduardo Nunez, both of whom were dinged in the final weeks of the season, back in the lineup. Boston can take added comfort in the season-long excellence of its bullpen, anchored by closer Craig Kimbrel and bolstered by right-handers Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes, plus David Price, Addison Reed and Carson Smith, all of whom joined the club or embraced a new role down the stretch.
Given all their viable options, the Red Sox won't be compelled to stick with a scuffling starter against the Astros. The need to squeeze an additional out from a fatiguing starter is mitigated by the availability of several relievers capable of doing a superior job when their name is called. That includes Price, a former Cy Young-winning starter who was placed in a relief role in September after missing six weeks due to left elbow inflammation.
"I think when you think about October, you're taking an all-hands-on-deck mentality," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "Whether it's a three-game series, five-game series or seven-game series, Game 1 is important. But I think our guys are primed and ready with that urgency and know that decisions can happen quick, and we're prepared for that."