For fans outside of Houston, this MLB playoffs matchup will be a clear case of 2020's baseball villains -- the Houston Astros -- against an Oakland Athletics team with as much animosity toward them as anyone in baseball -- yes, even the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. It's also a matchup of the two teams that have dominated the top of the American League West standings in recent year.
Instead of meeting in their home ballparks, the two teams will head to Los Angeles to settle things at Dodger Stadium as the postseason heads to neutral sites for the remainder of the month. Here's what you need to know now that the Astros-A's matchup is set.
Why this ALDS is worth the hype
Where do we begin? Oakland starter Mike Fiers -- a former Astros pitcher -- is the player who initially called out Houston's sign-stealing antics, setting all of this offseason's fallout in motion. Tempers boiled over when the two teams met earlier in the 2020 season when A's outfielder Ramon Laureano charged the Astros' dugout after being hit by a pitch for the third time in the series in an incident that triggered multiple suspensions.
Not that Astros haters needed any more motivation, but Houston shortstop Carlos Correa added a little more fuel to the fire when, after his team swept the Twins, he said, "I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don't want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?" No matter how fans feel about the Astros, their core of Correa, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman has a chance to reach its fourth straight ALCS.
Numbers to know
Series odds: The Athletics have a 60.2% chance of winning the series (projections from ESPN's Bradford Doolittle).
Season series: Oakland won 7-3.
Game 1: Monday, Oct. 5, TBS
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 6, TBS
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 7, TBS
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 8, TBS (if necessary)
Game 5: Friday, Oct. 9, TBS (if necessary)
How they got here
Astros: Despite finishing the regular season with a 29-31 record, the Astros earned an automatic playoff berth by finishing second in the American League West. Brought down by injuries during the year, the offense finished 14th in the majors with 279 runs scored and the pitching staff had MLB's 13th-best ERA at 4.31.
Wild Card Series: The Astros swept the Minnesota Twins 2-0.
Athletics: After finishing second to the Astros in the AL West and bowing out of the postseason as a wild-card team the past two seasons, the A's broke through in a big way during the 60-game 2020 season. Run prevention was the key to Oakland's 36-24 finish as the pitching staff posted the fifth-best ERA in the majors at 3.77 and featured a shutdown bullpen led by closer Liam Hendriks.
Wild Card Series: The A's defeated the Chicago White Sox 2-1.
Keys to the series for the Astros
1. Starting rotation depth
Even without the injured Justin Verlander, the Astros still have five quality starters in Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Lance McCullers Jr. and Cristian Javier. Dusty Baker used this to his advantage in the Game 1 victory over the Twins when Greinke went four innings and Valdez tossed the final five. Javier pitched two innings in relief in Game 2. With no off days in the best-of-five division series, it will be a little more difficult for Baker to tag-team his starters, but he could do that if he's willing to bring a starter back on short rest later in the series -- certainly doable depending on the starter's pitch count.
It will be interesting to see who draws the Game 1 assignment. Including his playoff outing, Greinke has a 5.40 ERA over his past eight starts. Valdez, meanwhile, was dominant in his outing against the Twins, following a breakout regular season in which he had a 3.57 ERA with an excellent 76-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
2. Jose Altuve in the two-hole
As a team, the Astros' offense fell off the cliff even as they had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors -- speculate all you want as to the reasons. After leading the majors in wOBA in 2019, the Astros dropped to 18th in 2020. Of the nine Astros regulars, Altuve had the worst OPS on the team in the regular season, hitting .219/.286/.344. Baker has shown a lot of loyalty in keeping Altuve in the second spot all season (other than a four-game blip in August when he hit sixth or seventh), but his bases-loaded go-ahead walk in Game 1 notwithstanding, Altuve has shown no signs of snapping out of his season-long struggles. He has been a terrific postseason performer through the years, but if he doesn't find some of that old October magic, it could be a quick series for the Astros.
Baker will likely have to dig deeper into his bullpen than he had to against the Twins, which means relying on a lot of rookie relievers with no postseason experience. The roster against the Twins included Ryan Pressly and Josh James -- and five rookies (although one of those rookies was 32-year-old Brooks Raley). James could be the important guy here. He fanned 100 in 61⅓ innings last year, started 2020 with two bad starts before moving back to the bullpen, then struggled initially in relief before ending the season with five scoreless outings in which he seemed to find the strike zone again. -- David Schoenfield
Keys to the series for the A's
1. Just hang close
The A's came back to overcome a 1-0 deficit against Chicago in the wild-card round, which included a rally from an early 3-0 hole against the White Sox in the series decider. You don't really design a team to succeed on come-from-behind wins, but such rallies can become the M.O. of a team's persona. The Athletics might be just such a team.
The A's won 11 games that they trailed at the beginning of the fifth inning or later, about double the big-league average. Part of that is the strength and depth of the Oakland bullpen. Their rotation might get dinged up early, but the Athletics' relievers keep the game close until the Oakland hitters find an opposing reliever they can take deep. That's roughly the formula they used to outlast Chicago on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Astros lost four games that they led at the beginning of the ninth inning during the regular season. There were only 28 such games in all of baseball. With closer Roberto Osuna injured, Dusty Baker has used veteran Ryan Pressly to close, along with a contingent of hard-throwing but unproven bridge guys. If this series turns into a battle of the bullpens, that will favor the Athletics.
2. Team defense
The flip side of Houston's offensive combination of a MLB-low strikeout rate and a below-average home run rate is that no team puts more balls into play. For Oakland, it puts the onus on Bob Melvin to balance the offense and defense of his lineups. This primarily is an infield quandary, as utility player Chad Pinder is generally a better defender than second baseman Tommy La Stella and third baseman Jake Lamb. Nate Orf worked as a defensive replacement for La Stella during the wild-card round.
It's a fine calculus, and Melvin needs to come up with the right answer. During the regular season, Oakland ranked a disappointing 25th in defensive runs saved as a unit. With league average performances in the infield, they would have ranked right around the middle.
3. The discipline of the hitters
Patience at the plate has long been a hallmark of the collective Oakland offensive approach. It's always tricky to balance that trait with a healthy dose of aggression. Against Houston, that tenuous balance could be a series-decider.
The approach for Houston's revamped staff has been to work off the plate, for the most part. No staff induced a lower swing rate than the Astros, and only three teams threw a smaller percentage of their pitches in the zone. The A's ranked third in the majors by lowest chase rate.
Unfortunately, Oakland ranked 26th in wOBA against pitches in the zone (.295). Against Houston, that figure was .327. If that had been the Athletics' overall total, it would have ranked 14th. So we know the Oakland hitters will take, take, take. Eventually though, the A's have to do damage when they get pitches to hit. -- Bradford Doolittle