FINISHING MOVE

Let's discuss 3 overriding keys for Astros to closeout Red Sox

Game Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After losing games 2 and 3 to the Red Sox in the ALCS, the Astros came back to win two straight games in Boston and lead the series 3-2.

The final two games (if necessary) will be in Houston.

The Astros could finish off this series on Friday and advance to their 3rd World Series in 5 years.

To accomplish this task, Houston must rely on their best two assets thus far, hitting and solid work out of the bullpen, with a little help from their starting pitchers.

The bats staying hot

The best thing about this Astros team has been their ability to come though in big situations at the plate.

The "Magnificent Seven" have all had great moments this postseason.

Jose Altuve and Kyle Tucker lead the team with three home runs each, and Yordan Alvarez has the hottest bat in the lineup with a .367 batting average.

The 24-year-old slugger had a tremendous game Wednesday when he went 3-5 and drove in three of the Astros 9 runs.

He and Yuli Gurriel have been the best bats this postseason, and look to continue to be a menace at the plate once the series shifts to Minute Maid Park.

Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Michael Brantley have started to heat up at the right time as well.

If the Astros continue to hit the way they have been, the Red Sox will be in trouble.

Since Eduardo Rodriguez tapped his wrist after striking out Carlos Correa in Game 3, the Astros have outscored Boston 18-3.

It's not as if Houston needs any extra motivation to return to the World Series, but it never hurts to have a little bonus incentive to beat an opponent.

The bullpen needs to bend not break

Manager Dusty Baker has been forced to use his bullpen a lot, with multiple starters unable to go deep into games.

With the exception of Framber Valdez's dominate Game 5 performance in which he pitched 8 quality innings, the Astros have been forced to use guys like Cristian Javier, Brooks Raley, Yimi Garcia and others more than they are used to.

Although they have given up some runs, the bullpen has yet to cost the Astros a game during the ALCS.

Games 2 and 3 were lost in the first few innings from poor starting pitching, and the bullpen did their part to not make it any worse.

Except for Ryne Stanek, who pitched the 9th inning Wednesday, the bullpen will have two full days off before they face the Red Sox Friday.

Greinke, Jake Oddorizzi and Javier could all eat major innings in relief outings if necessary.

The rest will come in handy as they may need them again to eat innings for Game 6 and 7 (if necessary).

Starting pitchers must do more

Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and Zack Greinke failed to pitch more than two innings in each of their starts. Garcia is slated to take the mound Friday and looks to bounce back after an abysmal outing.

In both of his postseason starts, he has thrown 3.2 innings and has a 24.55 ERA.

Needless to say there is nowhere to go but up for the 24-year-old pitcher.

If he could last five innings, it would take pressure off of the bullpen arms and give the Astros a better chance of closing out the series Friday night.

Houston has all the ingredients to beat Boston this weekend and return to the World Series once again.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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