Verlander is 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA since being traded to the Astros. He is so wildly competitive that he has to win every sprint with the pitchers during spring training drills, and now he is pumped about going back to the playoffs. Sale will be pitching in the playoffs for the first time. He too is ferocious. He hates losing, and his stuff is ridiculous: 308 strikeouts in 2017.
This is how this series will begin. No matter who wins, it promises to be memorable.
Here are five questions.
How does a pitching staff navigate that Astros lineup?
It is virtually impossible. In the final week of the season, the Astros became the first team in modern major league history (since 1900) to win four straight games by nine or more runs. "You can't match up with their lineup,'' A's manager Bob Melvin said. "They always have an answer. And no matter who you have in the bullpen, you can't match up with their bench.''
Indeed. The Astros led the league in runs scored. Their OPS was .823, and the league average was .748. They had 11 players with double-figure home runs, two of whom will not start at least one of the postseason games. They have thunder at the top with George Springer (34 homers), in the middle with MVP candidate Jose Altuve and all the way through: Brian McCann hits ninth on occasion. Here are the RBIs for spots 1-9, in order: 103, 91, 101, 115, 80, 82, 93, 89, 69. No let-up. And their bench is great, too.
What do we make of the Boston bullpen?
It was very good, but it has gotten even better. Closer Craig Kimbrel is a nightmare and the best closer in the American League this year: 1.43 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 14 walks and 126 strikeouts in 69 innings. The acquisition of Addison Reed down the stretch has helped immensely, especially in bringing the ball to Kimbrel. And now the Red Sox have a healthy David Price. It's a small sample, and maybe he can't keep it up, but his work out of the pen has been terrific: 8 2/3, three hits, no runs, two walks, 13 strikeouts. Teams win in October with deep, versatile bullpens, and Price's emergence the past two weeks potentially gives the Red Sox someone who at least resembles Andrew Miller, a power left-hander for all situations.
What the does Astros' rotation look like after Verlander?
It was supposed to be Lance McCullers with that great curveball, but too many injuries and some arm fatigue might keep him out of the rotation. After Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, the likely No. 3 starter will be Brad Peacock, who went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA. In September, opposing hitters hit .160 off him. The Astros have other options, including Charlie Morton. It would also really help the Astros if Keuchel is at his best in Game 2. He has been pretty good lately, and you know he's good when hitters are coming back to the dugout shaking their heads at what he threw: When it looks like a strike is coming but ends up being a ball, and when it looks like a ball is coming but ends up being a strike.
What does the Red Sox's rotation look like after Sale?
They are good to go with No. 2 starter Drew Pomeranz, who went 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA. After the All-Star break, he was 8-2 with a 3.01 ERA. He averaged 3.6 walks per nine innings this season, and putting Astros on base ahead of other dangerous Astros is a bad idea. After Pomeranz, the Red Sox likely will turn to Eduardo Rodriguez, but they also have Doug Fister and, far less likely, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello. To repeat: Given the uncertainty after Sale, Game 1 might be crucial if the Red Sox are to win this series.
What are the Astros playing for?
They've never won the World Series, and they have gone only once. They were 60-29 at one point this season, so they got everyone's hopes up in Houston that this would be the year to finally win it all. Several years ago, the Astros were labeled by some as a model franchise, a team that, more than any other, would win by embracing analytics, with newer techniques to draft and develop players.
Two years ago, they broke through and made the playoffs. Then they were knocked out by the Royals in the ALDS, losing a Game 4 in which they had a three-run lead in the eighth inning. When that series was over, Altuve walked into manager A.J. Hinch's office with tears in his eyes, apologizing that he was the reason they didn't win. It wasn't Altuve's fault, but since that day, the Astros have been aching to get back.
Prediction: Astros in five.