By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Red Sox were better than the Yankees.
Better starting pitching. Better manager. Better lineup – one capable of both mashing and manufacturing. Yes, we identified some holes going in. But they were able to mask those deficiencies with a combination of talent and execution, ultimately proving to be more well-rounded than their New York counterparts.
Against the Astros, however, they’re underdogs out for revenge.
This isn’t some appeal to the sensibilities of the Boston sports masses, who prefer their teams plucky, disrespected, and ultimately triumphant. Plenty of pundits and some oddsmakers are picking the Sox. They collected more regular season wins than Houston, scored more runs, even compiled a great pitching line. But there’s something about that Astros staff – not a single pitcher on their postseason roster had an ERA higher than 3.86 – and its top end offensive talent that makes the defending world champions a frightening matchup for Boston.
There’s also the fact that Houston dispatched the back-to-back AL East champs in four games last year, posting 16 runs in the first two contests while allowing just four. After dropping Game 3 at Fenway Park, the Astros punched a ticket to the ALCS, getting by Boston’s top arm (Chris Sale) and best reliever (Craig Kimbrel) in the main event. They ultimately won the whole thing.
Both teams bulked up last offseason. Boston added J.D. Martinez (.330, 43 home runs, 130 RBI) to its lineup. Houston dropped Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA, 276 strikeouts) into an already loaded rotation. And just over a year later, here they are again.
October meetings in consecutive years don’t happen that frequently. For the Red Sox, the last time was 2009, when the Angels got revenge following years of early playoff exits. Boston ran up a 9-1 postseason record against Anaheim, sending them home in 2004, 2007 and 2008, before John Lackey & Co. (now known as “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”) swept the Sox in what would be Boston’s last playoff appearance for four years.
In that case, revenge was a dish served cold.
As was 2004. Except the Sox were the ones behind the counter.
Before that, the 1999 team gained a measure of revenge against their 1990s tormenters, the Cleveland Indians. Dan Duquette had crafted the Sox into a Frankenstein-like creation of ascendant superstars, overripe veterans and relative unknowns. Standing in the way were the Indians, who featured a downright scary offense that obliterated the Sox in 1995, then topped a slightly different Boston edition in 1998, three games-to-one. In fact, they closed out the series at Fenway Park against a lights-out Boston closer, Tom Gordon. Sound familiar?
The 1999 Indians were still loaded but past a three-year span where they twice appeared in the World Series. The Sox got themselves in a 2-0 series hole but roared back to take it in five games, with Pedro Martinez submitting a bullpen gem in the closing matchup while Troy O’Leary provided an iconic grand slam and three-run homer.
Revenge can be sweet.
Both the Red Sox and the Astros are poised to sit atop the American League for the foreseeable future. While Boston hired Dave Dombrowski to poach veteran names to mix with young talent, Astros top executive Jeff Luhnow presided over a slow burn. Following a trio of 100-loss seasons earlier this decade, Houston now boasts a raft of young players, buoyed by some shrewd, big-time acquisitions by Luhnow.
The Red Sox have the highest payroll in all of baseball. They’re stocked with young talent, too. They added another successful chapter to their tale-as-old-as-time rivalry with the Yankees, but can they get by the kings of the American League?
Time to practice my announcer voice: It’s a clash of superpowers, with one club vying to maintain its hold on the world championship, and the other looking to become the most decorated team of the millennium.
With three World Series wins in the last 14 years, they Sox are tied with the Giants for the most since Will Smith had a hit with “Will 2K.” If they can topple the Astros, they’ll have a chance at another.
Success is the best revenge.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.