The Astros are one step closer to becoming the first repeat World Series champs since 2000.
I think it’s fair to say that most fans were at least cautiously optimistic heading into the Division Series against Cleveland. After all, the team was coming off of a franchise-record 103 wins and facing a Cleveland team they finished twelve games ahead of. But even if you thought this would be the most favorable match-up the Astros could hope for in the first round, no playoff series will ever be “easy”, in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t think anyone was expecting the team to make things this lopsided. The Astros outscored the Indians, 21-6. Cleveland only led for six and a half innings for the entire series. Their bullpen, a clear weakness going into October, was especially brutalized, with Andrew Miller as the only reliever with an ERA under 4.50 (which feels especially hollow given that he only recorded one out across two appearances and allowed the two inherited go-ahead runners to score in Game 2). If you look at it from a Win Expectancy angle, the Indians only had a WE greater than 70% for two plays in the entire three-game set; given that those two plays came late in game three, which was the final game of the set and ended up going to the Astros 11-3, it seems accurate to say the Indians never looked like they had a chance to move on.
It was a true team effort, and there were so many stand-out performances to highlight. Justin Verlander threw a strong Game 1, then Gerrit Cole one-upped him with a historic twelve strikeout, no walk, one run performance that showed he’s a co-ace of this team. Alex Bregman posted an unreal .556/.714/1.333 slash line, featuring two homers, four walks, four runs batted in, and five runs. George Springer led the team with three home runs, giving him eight in his last nine postseason games. Marwin Gonzalez’s go ahead runs batted in in Games 2 and 3 and team-leading .51 Win Probability Added for the series earned my MVP vote.
There are still questions, as there always are, for those of you who want to embrace your inner skeptic. The team left 26 runners on base, not even counting the ones lost to their season-long nemesis, the GIDP. Carlos Correa didn’t give the impression that he’s fully healthy, picking up only one hit. The catcher spot, between Martin Maldonado and Brian McCann, got just a single hit and struck out six times. Yuli Gurriel’s two hits out of the cleanup slot left a lot of runners stranded. Dallas Keuchel’s outing almost felt nerve-wracking, following up on Verlander and Cole’s relatively smooth outings and coming after his relative down-year.
But even those feel almost like nitpicks, and each has a bright side you can be hopeful about. Generally, stranding a bunch of runs means you’re getting a lot of runners in total (and by proxy, runs). Correa and Maldonado’s lone hits were both home runs, showing they can still be threats. Yuli’s performance was still within the range you would expect, given the small sample size (a fact which also extends to Correa and the catchers). Keuchel’s 5.0 innings of four-hit, two-run ball will certainly hold up as a fourth starter the rest of the way, especially since the bullpen seems solid based on their ALDS performance.
Really, if there’s any actual downside, it’s that no remaining potential opponents have a weakness that’s as obvious to exploit as the Indians’ pen; if Cleveland was a video game boss, their relief corps were the glowing red welt on their backside. While I think you can make an argument that every part of the Astros could stack up against any part of the Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, or Dodgers, there’s a good chance that we won’t be seeing any more 11-3 laughers. That, plus the randomness of playoff baseball, keeps anything from being certain, but right now, with every part of the team firing on all cylinders and a few days to rest and regroup, it’s hard not to be as confident as a team can be given all of that.
Three down, eight to go.