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How Astros final stretch of games will perfectly set the tone for postseason

These 2 teams present the perfect tune-up for the Astros heading into the playoffs. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Major League Baseball is drawing close to the end of the regular season. Brace yourselves. Playoff baseball is upon us. There are fan bases out there that will have unreal expectations while holding on to hope looking at their teams' Magic Number. Look away because your team won't make it. The teams that will make it, mainly the ones in the Wildcard games in both leagues, won't be around long either.

The Astros aren't one of those teams. They have designs on winning another World Series and shutting up all the haters. Winning in 2017 is "tainted" according to others. Coming within five outs of winning the 2019 World Series is still seen as them "cheating", even though MLB's report says otherwise. Perception is often reality for the willfully ignorant. Winning a World Series this year would undoubtedly be the biggest middle finger salute to all the haters out there.

All season long, this team has either played up or down to the level of its competition. Coming down the stretch, they're playing the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's. The Rays are the best team in the American League. The A's are behind the Astros by a handful of games in the AL West, as well as a handful of games behind the Red Sox and Yankees for the two AL Wildcard spots. These two teams present the perfect tune-up for the Astros heading into the playoffs.

Playing the Rays is a preview of a potential ALCS matchup. The Rays have the number one seed in the AL locked up. They'll have home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. The Astros are pretty entrenched at the number two spot. They'll have home-field advantage over the third seed in the second round most likely. This series gives the Astros a good look at the team they'll have to overcome if they expect to get back to, and win, another World Series. They have a perfect blend of pitching, hitting, youth, and veteran presence. If you want a good sparring partner, they're it.

The A's are like that pesky little fighter who fights the full 12 rounds, doesn't get knocked down, barely wins a couple rounds, but manages to hang on while gracefully losing a unanimous decision. They have enough talent to fight you tooth and nail, but not enough stamina to outlast you. The A's will make the Astros get more consistent and fine tune things right as they hit their stride into the playoffs.

If the way they've played so far this season is any indication, the Astros should win both series and head into the playoffs with some much-needed momentum. While both teams present a challenge, the Astros have enough to meet each challenge. I can see them owning this home stretch and having it catapult them into another ALCS appearance. The petty part of me wants them to beat the Yankees' Gerrit Cole at Minute Maid in the playoffs to end their season, then go on to beat either the Red Sox or A's in the ALCS. It would be satisfying getting the series clinching hit off that snitch in Oakland. However, since that's not in the cards this season, poetic justice would be hoisting another Commissioner's Trophy followed by another parade through downtown Houston. Oh, how I would love for them to force the haters to EAD!

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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