3 critical keys to ensure a trip back to the World Series for Astros

The Astros might have to do this without McCullers. Composite image by Jack Brame

For the fifth consecutive year, the Houston Astros are advancing to the American League Championship Series.

They will face the Boston Red Sox for the third time ever in the postseason.

Both teams have won a series against each other in recent years as Houston bested the Sox in the 2017 ALDS and Boston beat the Astros in the 2018 ALCS.

Houston joins the 1995-99 Atlanta Braves and the 1971-75 Oakland Athletics as the only teams since 1969 to participate in the LCS in five consecutive years.

Houston won the regular season series 5-2 and had a run differential of 42-25 against the Red Sox.

Boston is coming off a series in which they upset a 100-win Tampa Bay Rays team in four games.

"They know how to play the game,'' Altuve said of Boston. "They've been in the playoffs before, so it's going to be fun.

Both teams will have a few days off before the two square-off Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

If the Astros look to advance to their third World Series in five years, they will need everyone to do their part.

Keep the hits coming

With the exception of Yuli Gurriel, the "Magnificent Seven" balled out at the plate against the Chicago White Sox and look to continue to do damage against this Red Sox pitching staff.

It's hard to image the American League Batting Title champion will have back-to-back series in which he hits below a .200 batting average. If the first baseman continues to struggle, this Astros lineup is so deep that they could put his bat lower in the order, as they did in the ALDS.

Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker all hit above .270 in the ALDS and appear to be firing on all cylinders.

As previously mentioned, the Astros scored 42 runs on the Red Sox in seven games during the regular season, so driving in runs shouldn't be an issue for this hitting core.

Houston has plenty of depth as well. Aledmys Diaz and Jason Castro only received a single at-bat each last series during garbage time, and Chas McCormick has filled in nicely when needed in the outfield.

Diaz and Castro might not necessarily play every day, but they are great bench players that could be used at manager Dusty Baker's disposal at any time.

Too much depth is never a bad thing.

If the Astros receive consistent hitting from their 1-8 hitters (with Martin Maldonado getting a hit every now and then), this team will be extremely lethal.

Pitching as a unit

This season, Framber Valdez solidified his spot as the number two pitcher in this rotation and looks to take the mound Game 1 on Friday.

In his last outing he pitched only 4.1 innings of work, but looked comfortable on the mound. Last year, the 27-year-old had a 3-1 record in the 2020 postseason with a 1.88 ERA.

With the news that Lance McCullers could potentially miss the American League Championship Series, Valdez looks to step up and become the new ace of this pitching staff going forward.

In his last outing he powered through only 4.1 innings of work against the White Sox, but looked comfortable on the mound.

His groundball rate is the best in baseball among any starting pitcher, and could be pivotal against this free swinging Red Sox lineup.

Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy had impactful seasons as well and earned their sports in the Astros' playoff rotation.

If the starters can pitch the minimum of 5-6 innings, Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly have proven they can get crucial outs at the end of games.

Although not an elite pitching unit, this team has enough talent on the mound to keep runs off the board and ensure the Astros stay in games through the series.

Overcoming injuries

Two Astros' players may be out for the foreseeable future.

McCullers left Game 4 in the fourth inning due to right forearm tightness.

"I just started getting tight at the beginning of the [fourth] inning," McCullers said. "I got out of it."

Jon Heyman of the MLB Network reported McCullers will most likely miss the ALCS.

This could a catastrophic loss for Houston as he was having a career-year on the mound.

There is still hope he could return should the Astros make it to the World Series, but it is still too early to make that decision.

Zack Greinke would be the most likely pitcher to start in McCullers' place if he is unable to go, or Jake Odorizzi could be added to the ALCS roster after he was left off the previous series.

Jake Meyers had to leave Game 4 early as well when he attempted to rob White Sox DH Gavin Sheets' 408-foot homer but slammed into the wall at full force with his left shoulder out front.

Meyers was down on the field several minutes after the play and had to be helped up multiple Astros' players and medical staff members.

Baker said after the game that there's no update on Meyers' status, and he will have to be further evaluated by team trainers and doctors in the coming days.

Baker didn't elaborate on who would replace Meyers if he couldn't play in the ALCS, but Chas McCormick would be the most likely solution.

These two were key reasons why the Astros beat the White Sox last series, so the team is hopeful they could both return at some point during the ALCS.

Up Next:

Framber Valdez will take the mound for Game 1 on Friday night against Chris Sale.

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