White Sox vs. Astros is so many things. It’s a perennial postseason wanna-be that just won its first division title in 13 seasons facing a recent World Series champion going for its fifth straight trip to the American League Championship Series. It’s a matchup of 70-something managers. It’s a rematch of the 2005 World Series. And it’s a sometimes-overlooked big-city team against a team infamously known as cheaters.
But peel away the memory of the Sox’ four-game World Series sweep in 2005, the black eye of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017 and ’18 and the 21 division titles, seven league championship trophies and three World Series rings between 72-year-old Dusty Baker and 77-year-old Tony La Russa (the one with all the rings). You’re left with a rather evenly matched pairing.
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 home in July.
All it takes to negate the advantage is a strong start in Game 1 by the Sox’ 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. That would force the Astros to win the other two games on their home turf, plus split two at a hostile, jacked-up, dressed-in-black Guaranteed Rate Field on Sunday and Monday.
Lynn, however, is 5-7 with a 4.41 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) against the Astros in his career, and La Russa is waiting until Wednesday to name him or Giolito as his Game 1 starter. On June 19 against the Astros, Lynn allowed six runs, 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 Ranger, for 15 earned runs and 20 hits, including five home runs, over 11 ⅔ innings in 2020.
But Lynn also has a sparkling 2.69 ERA this year, helping Sox pitchers to a No. 1 ranking in the majors in FanGraphs wins above replacement and strikeouts. The rotation of Lynn, Giolito, Carlos Rodon, Dylan Cease and Dallas Keuchel was the Sox’ backbone, with an AL-best 3.57 ERA.
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 also have the top two AL batting-average leaders in Yuli Gurriel (.319) and Michael Brantley (.311), the top player in wins above replacement in shortstop Carlos Correa and 31-homer second baseman Jose Altuve. And their second-best player in WAR is Kyle Tucker, the AL Player of the Month for September/October, who batted sixth and seventh in the lineup most of the season.
The Sox counter with a potent and (finally) healthy top six of Anderson, 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 the earlier encounters 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 [the Astros have] had a lot of experience and made deep runs in the playoffs, and that goes a long way,” Grandal said. “You’re not going to intimidate a team like that. You’re not going to put pressure on a team like that. 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: Tony La Russa was noncommittal about Carlos Rodon’s status for the series: “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.