WGBH's All Things Considered host Barbara Howard spoke with Boston Globe baseball reporter Alex Speier about the Red Sox playoff series against the Houston Astros, which gets underway Thursday. Below is a transcript of their conversation. To listen to their conversation, click on the audio player above.
Barbara Howard: The Red Sox kick off their postseason tomorrow afternoon in Houston, Game One of the American League Divisional Series against the Astros. Joining us with a preview of that series is Alex Speier — he covers baseball for the Boston Globe. Hi, Alex.
Alex Speier: Hi, Barbara.
Howard: So the Red Sox head into the playoffs as division champs. They did come out on top in the American League East, but they didn't exactly finish the regular season with a bang: they lost three out of their final four games to these very same Houston Astros that they're about to play in the best-of-five series. And the Astros, they have a formidable offense. They scored more runs than any other team in baseball this season. So Alex, can the Red Sox starting pitchers keep them at bay? Ace Chris Sale — he gets the start tomorrow, and he was a little bit inconsistent down the stretch.
Speier: He was, though of course, it's a bet that the Red Sox are probably pretty comfortable making on Sale. Look, there are no guarantees in the Astros' offense, as you point out. Extraordinary. They scored more runs this year than any team in baseball since 2009. But, they, you know, Chris Sale has a long history of excellence against them. And he hasn’t faced them this year, which actually plays into his favor. He was one of the pitchers who did not pitch against them in this past year. So the Red Sox are hopeful that he'll get them out off to a good start. They will turn to Drew Pomeranz in the second game of the series. Pomeranz was very good against the Astros in his final start of the season on Saturday, and then they're still determining who else will round out the rotation. But it is a tall task.
Howard: How do you think the Sox batters will handle Houston's pitching?
Speier: Houston also has an impressive front, too. Justin Verlander is going to be pitching against Sale in game one, and he's one of the best pitchers, really of this baseball generation, followed by Dallas Keuchel, a guy who has a fantastic beard and also won the Cy Young Award in 2015. So the Red Sox have their work cut out for them offensively. They've struggled at times offensively this year. They're going to have to find a way to have the kind of timely hitting that often alluded them this year. But it is a very tough Red Sox team that's been surprisingly adept at finding ways to win games in which their offense was just kind of able to scratch and claw together a few runs, thanks to their pitching staff.
Howard: Well one real bright spot for the Sox this season has been the bullpen. I understand that's not so much the case for the Astros, right?
Speier: The Astros have some very good pitchers at the back end who have great stuff, but haven't been ... nearly as consistent as the Red Sox were through the course of 2017. The Astros do sometimes lose games in which they have the lead, whereas the Red Sox did a pretty good job of putting a stranglehold on games in which they were either tied or had a lead in the late innings. The Red Sox bullpen really was remarkable, historically good from the perspective of the franchise's history this year. It was a remarkable performance that allowed them to win 15 of 18 extra inning games this year. That's the reason why the Red Sox are in the playoffs, because of their bullpen, really.
Howard: So given all that, do the Sox, you think, have a decent chance this series?
Speier: Any team has a chance, has a decent chance if they're in a short postseason series. The best team doesn't always win in the postseason. I think that on paper, the Astros are a deeper, better-balanced team than the Red Sox, but in the best-of-five scenario, that best team doesn't always win. Last year, the Red Sox were a better team on paper than was [the Cleveland Indians] entering in the American League Division Series. The Red Sox lost three games, three straight games, and found their season coming to a very abrupt conclusion. So anything can happen in this context.
Howard: If the Red Sox do not advance — if they lose in the series to the Astros — could it be curtains for manager John Farrell? It would be the second straight year that the Sox made an early exit from the playoffs.
Speier: It's hard for me to reach that conclusion based on the fact that I think it's kind of remarkable achievement that the Red Sox won the American League East, given the overall shape of their roster, one that withstood a ton of injuries over the course of this season and had to adapt on the fly frequently. And also because of what we were just talking about — the Astros are probably the better team on paper, but you never know. That's kind of a closed loop of discussions that happens between the ownership level and the president of baseball operations and the team president. It can be difficult to read those tea leaves, but I think that based on what's happened in 2017, that would be an awfully difficult decision to reach.
Howard: OK. Thanks for joining us, Alex.
Speier: Thanks, Barbara.
Howard: That's Alex Speier, he covers baseball for the Boston Globe. The Red Sox take on the Astros in Game One of the American League divisional series tomorrow afternoon in Houston.