Here are eight pivotal matchups to watch as the American League Division Series get underway.
The Yankees vs. pitching staff chaos
The Yankees’ relievers pitched brilliantly in the AL wild-card game, dominating the Twins over 8⅔ innings like a great 4x4 relay team -- Chad Green followed by David Robertson followed by Tommy Kahnle, with Aroldis Chapman as the 103 mph anchor. But as the series against the Indians begins, manager Joe Girardi’s options will be limited. Robertson threw a career-high 3⅓ innings on Tuesday night, and it might be that he won’t be available at all. Green could be an option for only an inning at most, and the same could be true for Kahnle. Chapman is presumably a full go.
In Game 1, the Yankees have to hope that Sonny Gray pitches into the sixth inning, at least, and Dellin Betances -- the one high-end reliever whom Girardi didn’t have to use against the Twins -- might have to play a significant role. At his best, Betances has been one of the premier relievers in baseball, and the only reliever with at least 100 strikeouts the past four seasons. But he was an enigma for Girardi down the stretch because of command struggles. Over three outings in one September week -- Sept. 5 to Sept. 11 -- he allowed four runs and four walks in 2⅔ innings. Later in September, he had three consecutive strong appearances, walking none over three scoreless and hitless innings. But in his final appearance of the regular season, on Friday, he gave up a walk and a hit and Girardi quickly pulled him. They need the Dr. Jekyll in Betances on Thursday.
Red Sox hitters vs. their Justin Verlander history
Because this is Verlander’s 13th year in the big leagues, he’s managed to throw a blanket over a couple of generations of hitters. But for whatever reason -- added adrenaline, venue, lineup composition or just because he’s really, really good -- he has mostly dominated the current collection of Boston hitters.
Pedroia is 3-for-27 (.111) in his regular-season career against Verlander, and Mookie Betts is hitless in 13 at-bats. The Red Sox have compiled 180 at-bats against Verlander as a group, and they’ve managed to generate zero homers,
with a .553 OPS.
And it just so happens that the Red Sox will be facing Verlander in Game 1 when he’s throwing the ball extremely well: Since joining the Astros, Verlander has a 1.06 ERA, with five walks and 43 strikeouts in 34 innings.
Chris Sale vs. his flat slider
If Sale is at his best, the Red Sox are capable of matching Verlander zero for zero, and the Red Sox left-hander should be fully rested, having last pitched Sept. 26. But Sale’s starts over the last two months of the regular season were dotted with ugly outings that seemingly had one common denominator: Sale’s slider, arguably MLB’s best pitch in the first half of the season, seemed to flatten out, drifting on more of a horizontal plane then biting downward as it neared home plate. Sale surrendered a whopping nine homers in 29 innings in September, despite having a couple of dominant performances. Remarkably, he allowed more homers than walks (eight) in the final month.
So the path of his slider -- and the relative aggressiveness of the swings of the Houston hitters -- will probably be a pretty good clue for John Farrell on Thursday as the Red Sox manager makes his assessment.
Jose Altuve has really good numbers against Sale in his career: eight hits in 21 at-bats, with a double and a homer.
Andrew Miller vs. his right knee trouble
The best pitcher of the 2016 postseason went on the disabled list twice this year because of an issue with his right knee -- the knee on which the left-hander lands in his delivery. Miller spoke confidently in early September of how he felt he would be helped by his strengthening regimen. The knee problems have tended to manifest in Miller’s command, so if you see him falling behind in the count, that could be a sign of concern.
With Miller whole and relatively healthy, the Indians are the team to beat in the playoffs. If he struggles, the Indians' bullpen has a very different look.
Luis Severino vs. his confidence
There’s no getting around this: The pitcher perceived to be the Yankees' ace generated one of the worst starts in MLB postseason history, allowing five of the six hitters he faced to reach base, including a couple of homers. After Severino retreated to the clubhouse for a bit, he emerged on the Yankees’ bench and seemed to be in good spirits as he watched four relievers fill in the gap for what he left behind.
You could make a strong case that the Yankees would have been better served to start Severino in Game 2 to get him back in action as soon as possible instead of sitting and wallowing in his messy wild-card game start. You could also make a case that it would be better for Severino's next start to come on the road, rather than at Yankee Stadium, where he was booed off the mound the other day -- and Severino has pitched well on the road this year. But the Yankees have lined him up to start in Game 4; they will be ahead or behind in the series 2-1, and there will again be plenty of pressure on the ace.
Dustin Pedroia vs. his physical limitations
The Boston second baseman has long had a great reputation as a gamer, someone who toughs his way through injuries, and evaluators who have trailed the Red Sox feel Pedroia is really hurting now because of left knee problems. "It hurts to watch him run," one scout said. "It looks like it's max effort for him." Pedroia missed nine games in the last 31 days of the regular season and was also sometimes removed from games he started. Since Sept. 14, Pedroia has three hits in 36 at-bats for an .083 average.
But the postseason has a way of re-energizing players, particularly through its built-in days off, and Pedroia continues to insist he'll be OK.
The Houston Monsters vs. the three-day layoff
Houston shortstop Carlos Correa missed almost two months after having thumb surgery, and hitting did not come easily in his return to the lineup. He mostly hit singles to the opposite field as he regained his timing and the strength in his hand -- and Correa got back all of that later in September. After getting a day off Sept. 22, Correa mashed three hits against the Angels on Sept. 23, including a double, the first sign of the eruption that followed. He had 17 hits, including three homers and five doubles, in his final 31 regular-season at-bats, with a lot of that damage coming against the Red Sox.
When hitters are swinging the bat well, they do not like time off -- and the Astros did not play Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Correa had to sit and wait; so did Yuli Gurriel, who went 8-for-20 in the last week, and Alex Bregman, who finished with 11 hits in 28 at-bats. For these Houston hitters, the mini-break might serve to be a speed bump.
Trevor Bauer vs. his expectations
The Indians' decision to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1 -- and not Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco -- is being widely debated. The Cleveland staff is comfortable with the layers of logic behind its choice:
(A) The 26-year-old Bauer has pitched better lately than his overall numbers (4.19 ERA) might indicate. He had a 5.25 ERA at the end of July and since then he has been excellent, allowing just 20 runs in 70 innings (2.57 ERA), with 79 strikeouts. He also has pitched better at home, so the Indians will have him make his first postseason start at Progressive Field.
B) Kluber's preference is to pitch on regular rest, and he'll get to do so in Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 5 because there are travel days built in after Games 2 and 4. Carrasco will get Game 3 at Yankee Stadium.
But if Bauer has a rough outing in Game 1 and the Indians lose, giving the Yankees' early momentum in the series, Cleveland will undoubtedly be second-guessed for defying the conventional wisdom of throwing the best starter in Game 1 when you have the opportunity to do it.
Something to watch in Thursday's game: When Bauer has troubles, he tends to generate a lot of deep counts early in the game.