While two of the three pre-season top picks for AL Champion, Boston and Cleveland, are hanging around with a record just over .500, Houston has been tearing up the American League. Based on both their success last year and improvements heading into 2017 (both internal and external), the Astros were heavy favorites to win the West months ago and, along with the Nationals in the NL East, they have been the only team to play up to expectations.
Now, two of those teams will face off as the 20-19 Indians take on the 29-12 Astros. The teams last played in Cleveland late in April and the Indians took two out of three, although the two teams tied with 13 runs a piece in the series. Dallas Keuchel, who will not pitch in the upcoming series, took the win for the Astros in the opener before the Tribe beat Lance McCullers and Mike Fiers.
Since that series, Houston has been on fire. They’ve won each of the following six series including a two game sweep of Atlanta and winning three of four against another hot team, the Yankees. That series against New York may have been the biggest for the Astros this year as they took on the best offense in baseball and outscored them 24 to 21 with 11 of the Yankees runs coming in their one win.
Now, the Astros rank third in all of baseball offensively, behind only the Yankees and Nationals with a good enough rotation and elite bullpen. Their biggest weakness is defensively, but their team K/9 of nearly 10 limits that damage and their ability to score against anyone has made any defensive issues moot.
The Indians have the opposite problem, and it has cost them lately. Defensively, they are near enough league average that it hasn’t hurt and their pitching staff strikes out even more than the Astros. Offensively, however, the Indians rank 14th in baseball and below league average in nearly every metric. While some Indians hitters have been large positive forces offensively (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley) others have been so bad (Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Guyer, Roberto Perez and many more) that they’ve eliminated any positive progress as a team.
While there are some positive signs, including Yan Gomes improvements over the last few weeks, it hasn’t been enough as the Indians have dropped four of their last six to Minnesota and Tampa. While they scored eight in each of the two wins, they’ve brought home just eight total in the four losses.
With the Astros riding high and the Indians about as low as they ever expected this season, this series should be an interesting one. Neither team needs to win the series this early in the season, in fact, the Astros could lose 10+ in a row and still probably maintain their lead in the West, but how both teams play could be a great preview of what could potentially be a match-up in October.
The first of three games will be at 8:10 PM Friday night and will feature Trevor Bauer and Charlie Morton. Bauer is coming off his second best start of the season where he allowed three runs in six innings against the Twins. Most of Minnesota’s success came late in the game as for the first time, Bauer had great control early on. In fact, he didn’t walk a batter for the second time this season. With the poor starts against Tampa taxing the bullpen, the Indians will need a long outing from Bauer in game one. A poor one could set the stage for a rough series with both Carlos Carrasco unavailable.
Morton is having his best season since 2014, but he’s struggled in giving up home runs and has an ERA just below four. He’s only faced the Indians once before and had a decent appearance, allowing three runs in six innings, but that was in 2015 when the Indians had a fairly different line-up and Morton was a different pitcher.
The two teams will play game two on Saturday afternoon and Mike Clevinger will make his third start for the Tribe while Mike Fiers will go for Houston. Fiers lost his first appearance against the Tribe this year back on April 27th when he was outdueled by Corey Kluber. That start notwithstanding, Fiers has been one of the weakest points of an otherwise dynamic Astros roster, posting a 5.75 ERA to this point and an 8.22 FIP to legitimize it. Facing a struggling pitcher they’ve seen a few times before could be just what the Indians need to pull themselves out of a collective offensive funk.
Clevinger was incredible in his first start, striking out five in 5.1 innings and allowing just one hit in a game that would end as a team one hitter, but he lasted just 4.1 in his last start and allowed three runs while walking five. The Astros live off the home run, so Clevinger will be in trouble if he gets behind in the count often or gives up more than a couple free base runners.
The series will wrap up on Sunday and while starters are yet to be announced, the two options for Cleveland appear to be either Danny Salazar on regular rest (thanks to the off day Thursday) or Corey Kluber. If the Indians want Kluber to make a rehab start before returning from the DL, this would be impossible, but the Indians will need a sixth starter one way or another to push Carrasco back to Tuesday as announced. This sixth starter could go Sunday against Houston or Monday against Cincinnati. Given Salazar’s recent issues, giving him an extra day off and a much less significant offense to face wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
In the end, this isn’t an incredibly important series, but it should be a good one. After Houston, the Indians play 14 in a row against teams that are either in last place (Kansas City and Oakland) or second to last (Cincinnati) and they should easily be able to make up any ground loss. At the same time, the Indians still need to prove they can hang with the best in the AL and there isn’t a team that qualifies as such right now as much as the Houston Astros.