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The Astros Need To Get Something, Anything, From Their Rotation

Kyle Schwarber #18 of the Boston Red Sox hits a grand slam home run against the Houston Astros in the second inning of Game Three of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on October 18, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There’s only one stat that truly captures how dominant the Boston Red Sox offense has been in the ALCS against the Houston Astros. Sure, you can point to the unprecedented three grand slams over the last two games that pushed Boston into a 2-1 series lead. You could marvel at the 32 hits over three games, or the eight homers. Those are all impressive numbers, but the one that stuck out to me during Monday night’s 12-3 shellacking was simpler: For the series, Houston’s three starting pitchers so far have logged a total of five and one-third innings, while Monday’s Red Sox starter, Eduardo Rodriguez, logged six all by his lonesome.

Rodriguez was fantastic on Monday, dropping four strikeouts in the first two innings, and striking out the side in the second. He gave up a rather useless home run to Kyle Tucker in the fourth that made the scoreline 9-3, which is the definition of “no harm, no foul.” Rodriguez struggled against the Astros in the regular season, giving up 12 runs in 9.1 innings, but whatever block he had in those two games disappeared on Monday. After Nate Eovaldi threw for a semi-comfortable five and a third on Saturday, Rodriguez gave the bullpen the cushion it needed to load up for the rest of the series, if needed.

Early on, it looked like Rodriguez’s Astros counterpart, Jose Urquidy, was feeling the same dominant vibe. I prepared mentally for a pitcher’s duel, or as much of a pitcher’s duel as one can get in modern baseball, with all of its deep bullpens and matchup hunting. Urquidy retired the first four Red Sox hitters, punctuated by a filthy slider to Xander Bogaerts for a called strike three to lead off the second. That was the last time that he would look in control of anything.

It’s here that we return to the grand slam party masquerading as a playoff series. After the Red Sox mounted a mini-rally courtesy of two walks, a Fenway-assisted double, and an unlucky bounce off the pitcher’s mound that caught Jose Altuve by surprise, Kyle Schwarber stepped up with the bases loaded and, still, just one out. As someone who always, always, took the 3-0 pitch in Little League, I was mildly horrified by Schwarber swinging on at a 3-0 pitch, but that horror passed as soon as the ball landed in the seats in right field, and in its place came a mild amusement at what Boston has been able to do to knock Dusty Baker’s pitching plans off axis.

With that, out went Urquidy. I can’t decide if Baker can take solace in how deep and talented the Astros’ rotation was during the regular season. The rosy view is that Houston’s starters can’t possibly be this bad the rest of the way, and by nabbing Game 1, the team isn’t in an unclimbable hole. The reality, though, is that Lance McCullers Jr. is hurt and might not return in time, and even if he does and is as good as ever, it will likely only be for one game this series. Framber Valdez, the team’s number two starter, got knocked out early in Game 1, and both Urquidy and Luis Garcia gave up grand slams. It’s forcing Baker to rely on a bullpen that was weak, especially in comparison to the team’s offense and rotation in the regular season.

So far, that bullpen has been playing against a stacked deck, and it has done … fine. Closer Ryan Pressly gave up a solo homer in the opener that made the scoreline a bit closer than it would have been otherwise, and Monday’s platoon of five relievers gave up three runs—all from homers, of course—in almost eight innings of work. The only truly disappointing appearance by a reliever actually came from modified starter Jake Odorizzi in Game 2; he gave up the second grand slam of the game to put it out of reach, though Houston fought back a bit to make the 9-5 score a bit more respectable.

Even with that in mind, Odorizzi still ate up four innings in a game that was gone before the starter left the mound, so it can’t be all that disappointing. That type of mental trade-off will have to keep coming into Baker’s game-planning if Boston is going to come out of the gate ripping as hard as it has so far: 20 of its 25 runs this series have come in the first three innings of games. Boston isn’t doing anything revolutionary here. Its hitters are just stepping up early and knocking the hide off the ball. Given the team’s profile—all killer, no baserunning—that isn’t likely to change. It’ll be up to Houston’s starters to give more, anything more, or the Astros will be headed home just as fast as their pitchers have left the mound.