Two of the most potent offenses in baseball — as well as the two oldest managers in the game — are a couple of the reasons the best-of-five American League Division Series between the Astros and White Sox figures to be dripping with intrigue.
Hall of Fame White Sox manager Tony La Russa (77 years old) and Astros manager Dusty Baker (72) are no strangers, having battled for years in the NL Central when La Russa was with the Cardinals and Baker was with the Cubs. They’ve laughed in the face of Father Time and scoffed at the trend of younger, more progressive managers ruling the day.
And there’s mutual respect.
“They’re a very good team,” Baker said. “They’ve got excellent pitching and a good bullpen. I think they went out and got some extra help in their bullpen — probably to combat our offense. They’ve got good starting pitching, good power, good speed. It’s going to be a hell of a matchup.”
The managers may have had their AARP cards for a while now, but some of the players on their star-studded teams are young enough to be their grandchildren: Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers Jr. with Houston and Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Lucas Giolito of Chicago are all under 30 years old. And both teams have a pair of former MVPs: the Astros’ Jose Altuve (2017) and the White Sox José Abreu (2020).
“Outstanding,” La Russa said. “Look at their success over the past several years. Guys that know how to play, and they play the whole game: they defend, they run the bases, they take good at-bats. You can see they’re among the top as far as putting the ball in play. But we match up well with them. … They’re dangerous to play against, and we’re dangerous to play against. I think it’s going to be a competition that both teams will really enjoy. We’ll see who comes out best.”
What’s more, the White Sox and Astros may have the best pitching staffs in the AL, with the exception of the Tampa Bay Rays. With McCullers, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy, Houston can match Chicago’s rotation of Giolito, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón and Dylan Cease, and both teams have experienced bullpens led by All-Star closers — Liam Hendriks for the White Sox and Ryan Pressly for the Astros.
Here’s a look at what fans should watch for ahead of today’s Game 1 in Houston:
How have the two teams fared against each other in the playoffs?
The White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series, which is the only previous postseason matchup between the clubs.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
Game 1 of the ALDS will take place Thursday at 4:07 p.m. ET/3:07 CT at Minute Maid Park and will be televised on FS1. It is also available to stream on MLB.TV with authentication.
Astros: Because of injuries and Houston’s penchant for giving key offensive players occasional rest, the top seven hitters in its lineup — Altuve, Michael Brantley, Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Correa, Tucker and Yuli Gurriel — were all in the starting lineup at the same time in only 29 games, during which the Astros went 18-11. Those seven are in the postseason lineup for the ALDS opener.
White Sox: The left-handed-hitting Gavin Sheets is the obvious choice against right-handed pitching, and has actually excelled in the designated hitter role with a 1.085 OPS, eight home runs and 23 RBIs. He provides the lineup true left-handed power. Right-handed-hitting Andrew Vaughn figures to face southpaws, with La Russa having some versatility via Leury García and outfielder Adam Engel. This lineup has game-changing possibilities from top to bottom.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Astros: Baker announced on Tuesday that McCullers will start Game 1. He went 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 28 starts for Houston, striking out 185 batters in 162 1/3 innings. He gave up only 122 hits (6.8 per nine innings) but led the league with 76 walks. McCullers started twice against the White Sox this year and recorded a 2.08 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. In his career, he’s 1-2 with a 3.28 ERA in 14 career postseason games (seven starts).
White Sox: Lynn will be the Game 1 starter with Giolito making the start in Game 2, according to La Russa. The Game 3 starter has not been announced. Lynn is an AL Cy Young candidate in his first year with the White Sox, though he is 3-6 with a 4.92 ERA over nine career starts at Minute Maid Park. Giolito fanned 200 batters for the second time in his career and has a 1.57 ERA over three starts in Houston. Rodón and Cease are in line for the third and fourth spots.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Astros: If things go well for Houston, the club will give the ball to Ryne Stanek for the seventh inning, Kendall Graveman in the eighth and Pressly in the ninth. That’s the ideal way the Astros will line up their bullpen, but a short start by McCullers could mean Yimi García or Phil Maton have to get some big outs. The Astros figure to have Zack Greinke available in long relief, but if he pitches in Game 1 then something has gone wrong for Houston.
White Sox: Hendriks has been one of the best closers in baseball this season. Hendriks is also ready to pitch whenever La Russa needs him, after striking out 113 against just seven walks while recording 38 saves this season. Craig Kimbrel and Aaron Bummer also will work in high-leverage situations, with Garrett Crochet and Ryan Tepera in the mix. Michael Kopech provides the White Sox with a high-octane arm, able to go two or three innings when needed — Kopech stretched out to three innings and 51 pitches Sunday when he struck out six Tigers.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
White Sox: Evan Marshall.
Astros: Brantley is dealing with a sore right knee that forced him to miss 16 games in September. He played his first game in left field in weeks on Sunday, with the Astros preferring to play him at DH to rest his knees. Outfielder Jose Siri fractured his right pinkie last week, but the Astros are hopeful he can contribute (if he makes the playoff roster).
White Sox: Marshall has a right forearm strain and is not expected to be ready for the first round of the playoffs. Rodón has been dealing with left shoulder soreness, and his playoff roster status is still uncertain, according to La Russa’s comments Sunday. The White Sox would benefit from any sort of contribution from Rodón, who was one of the best starters in baseball this season when healthy.
Who is hot, and who is not?
Astros: In 36 games since returning from injured list, Tucker is batting .359 (46-for-128) with 25 runs, 12 doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 21 RBIs. Gurriel hit .343 (35-for-102) from Sept. 1 until the end of the season, winning the AL batting title by hitting .319 overall. Altuve is slashing .304/.371/.571 with 12 doubles and six homers in his last 28 games, while Correa is slashing .288/.339/.510 with six homers and 23 RBIs in his last 27 games.
White Sox: Since allowing seven runs over 1 1/3 innings in games against the Yankees on Aug. 12 and Aug. 14, Hendriks has yielded one run in 21 innings with 31 strikeouts and one walk. Grandal had a .561 slugging percentage, .468 on-base percentage and five home runs in September, while Robert — who has crushed the baseball since returning from his right hip flexor tear on Aug. 9 — slashed .340/.366/.585 during September, with six home runs and 21 RBIs.
Meanwhile, Vaughn was 3-for-38 in September with no extra-base hits, and Lopez has allowed 16 earned runs in his last 22 2/3 innings.
Anything else fans might want to know?
There will not be an automatic runner on second base in extra innings in the postseason.
The Astros are in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, including a franchise-record fifth in a row.
The White Sox have reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.
La Russa has 70 career postseason victories, six pennants and three World Series titles.