CHARLIE PALLILO

Astros-Red Sox series could be prime time magic

Jose Altuve was a big reason the Astros beat the Red Sox last season. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros-Red Sox matchup is Ali-Frazier for the 2018 baseball postseason. This after the Astros-Indians series turned out to be a heavyweight easily knocking out a cruiserweight.

The Astros are the defending champions, winners of a franchise record 103 games this season. The challengers this season became just the eighth team in the era of the 162 game schedule (started in 1961) to win 108 or more games. And they’re the underdogs! And rightfully so. But Boston winning the pennant would be a very minor upset.

The Red Sox definitely had the best offense in the AL this year. It wasn’t as great as the Astros’ 2017 offense, but it was a lot better than the 2018 Astros’ attack. Think of the 2018 breakdown this way: Mookie Betts was clearly better than Alex Bregman, J.D. Martinez was clearly better than Jose Altuve, Andrew Benintendi was clearly better than George Springer, and Xander Bogaerts was clearly better than Carlos Correa. The Sox lineup also has depth and versatility.

Like the Indians series, the Astros biggest on paper advantage comes in the bullpen. Boston’s four most used relievers all rack up strikeouts (what pitchers don’t these days), but all four have control issues. Whether working some walks or getting into favorable hitting counts the Astros should have chances to make hay against the Sox’ pen.

How early in games the Astros get into the Boston bully is a series subplot. Boston ace Chris Sale is phenomenal, but he’ll throw the first pitch of game one having pitched all of 18 1/3 innings in the last two months. He looked good against the Yankees, but last lasted 100 pitches in a game July 27. Boston Game 2 starter David Price merely has the worst starting pitcher resume in postseason history: 10 starts, 0-9 with a 6.03 earned run average. Past performance is no guarantee of future results but that is brutal. Price didn’t last the second inning of his Game 2 start against the Yankees and he was booed off the mound by the Fenway not always faithful. If the Astros put early pressure on Price the guy could fall apart. Price is very talented. He largely overpowered the Astros into the seventh inning at Fenway last month. The Astros then battered the bullpen.

The cool weather (Game 1 may finish with the temperature in the upper-40s, Game 2 a few degrees warmer) can’t be helpful for Carlos Correa’s back. Odd that his defense seems wholly unaffected while his hitting has mostly vaporized, but whatever. Good news/bad news that the Astros shouldn’t be and aren’t counting on Correa for offense. A.J. Hinch has smoothly handled Correa’s gradual batting order demotion from fourth to fifth to sixth and then seventh.

The Boston-Houston connections are significant. Red Sox manager Alex Cora was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach last year. Martinez flopped as an Astro prospect but has become one of the best hitters in the game; he’s been Hall of Fame caliber two seasons running now. Alvin High School grad Nathan Eovaldi will be the Sox’ starting pitcher in either game three or game four. Former Rice Owl Brock Holt should start multiple games over Ian Kinsler at second base. During the Yankees series Holt became the first big leaguer in postseason history to hit for the cycle.

My standard proviso is that without money on the line baseball postseason predictions are basically worthless. There are no real upsets possible, and any set of game outcomes is in play. I just don’t see a fundamental reason to pick against the Astros.

I hear there’s a National League Championship Series also. The team that won more games this season is the underdog there too. Let’s face it, Fox is rooting for a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series. Probably enough reason for Astros’ fans to root Brewers.

Don't get Buffalo'd

I hear the Texans play the Buffalo Bills Sunday. Provided Deshaun Watson is healthy this should be the easiest win left on the Texans’ schedule. Possible exception the Colts’ rematch in December. Famous last words right? Buffalo’s offense is garbage. The Bills have yet to muster 300 yards of total offense in a game. Despite an offensive line that remains wretched the Texans have topped 425 yards in all but one game. If the o-line and Bill O’Brien’s play calling don’t necessitate a professional body bag for Watson, watching Deshaun try to do work at Jacksonville next week should be fun.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Over/Under for Rockets’ regular season wins is 56 ½. I go over, but not the 65 they won last season.   2. Best season ticket in college football belongs to LSU fans. The Tigers this week get #2 Georgia in Baton Rouge then in three weeks it’s #1 Alabama heading to Death Valley.    3. Best Boston music acts: Bronze-The Cars Silver-Boston Gold-Aerosmith

 

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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