Column: 4 things to watch in the Chicago White Sox-Houston Astros 4-game series: A rematch of last year's playoffs

The four-game series that begins Monday between the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros has plenty of intriguing storylines, including Tuesday’s matchup of the top two American League Cy Young Award contenders, Justin Verlander and Dylan Cease.

It could be a chance for the Sox to show they’re bona fide contenders. Or it could be another in a string of missed opportunities for an inconsistent team.

Here are four things to watch in the rematch of last year’s American League Division Series.

The defending AL champion Astros are on a roll all season and bring the best record in the league (75-41) to the matchup on the South Side. They continued to dominate in 2022 despite the extended absence of Lance McCullers Jr., who returned Saturday to pitch six scoreless innings in his first start since he strained his right flexor tendon in Game 4 of the 2021 ALDS. .

The Astros have few flaws. His starters came into Sunday with the lowest ERA (3.15) in the American League, and the bullpen’s 2.76 ERA was the best in baseball. The offense ranked third in the American League in runs (519) and second in home runs (158).

A bye in the first round of the playoffs is practically a given. The only race the Astros are in is with the New York Yankees for the best record in the league and home court advantage in the AL playoffs. They have gone 39-18 since June 12, outscoring the Yankees, whom they beat 5-2 in the season series.

The Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 5-3 on Sunday to spend three games over .500 for the first time since a 6-3 start. They are 2 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Guardians in the AL Central. despite themselves.

The Red Sox are also in a wild-card race, though winning the division is paramount because it would secure home-field advantage in the first round. The top-ranked team receives all three games in the first round of the new expanded postseason format.

Although the Sox have had more success on the road than at home, they would obviously prefer to play in front of their fans at Guaranteed Rate Field.

These matchups are rare in modern baseball, so treasure them while you can.

Verlander, who missed nearly two seasons after Tommy John surgery in 2020, is the consensus favorite to capture his third Cy Young Award. At 39, he is more dominant than ever, leading the majors with 15 wins, a 1.85 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.

One of Verlander’s three losses came against the Sox on June 18 at Minute Maid Park, where he gave up seven runs (four earned) in 3⅔ innings. Since then he is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA.

Cese, 26, leads the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (12.17) and strikeout rate (33%) and has allowed one or no earned runs in his last 14 starts. setting a major league record (not counting starters). His only flaw is a 10.4% walk rate, the worst among qualified starters.

Cease’s 1.96 ERA ranks second to Verlander, but oddly enough he was left out of the AL All-Star team, a snub that has added to his motivation.

Cease started Game 3 of the ALDS last October, but was eliminated in the second inning of the Sox’s 12-6 win over the Astros. Since then he has been off, keeping the Sox in contention during their up-and-down season.

The heated rivalry that needs no introduction it came to life in the early 2000s, when Dusty Baker managed the Chicago Cubs against Tony La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals. It has mellowed somewhat with age, and both veterans now praise each other almost every time they meet, a mutual respect that has survived some bitter battles over the years.

La Russa has been a human piñata this season, drawing criticism for the Sox’s inability to live up to expectations. Chants of “Fire Tony” have been heard over the past two months at Guaranteed Rate Field, including on Friday when La Russa eliminated Michael Kopech after six hitless innings, a move made for Kopech’s sake.

Baker is enjoying a career year and has weathered injuries to McCullers and left fielder Michael Brantley, who is out for the season after shoulder surgery. Baker returned last week from a COVID-19-related absence and said he watched a lot of Netflix, including a Bob Marley documentary.

La Russa has three World Series rings and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baker is still seeking her first championship as a manager, and this could be his last chance.

It is unknown if this will be their last confrontation.

La Russa, 77, is reportedly signed through 2023, but Baker, 73, signed a one-year deal after leading the Astros to the World Series last year. “I had some unfinished business to take care of, but we’re close,” he said after signing.

Baker has a 109-106 head-to-head advantage over La Russa, winning two of three in Houston in June.

The veteran reliever, who was written out of his last appearance with what the Red Sox called “sickness,” is famous in Houston for grimacing as he walked off the mound in a 2020 game when he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kelly allegedly threw Carlos Correa and made his face after striking him out. The animosity stemmed from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in 2017.

The pouting face started an incident that cleared the benches, earned Kelly an eight-game suspension, and became a meme that is still widely shared.

“Everyone knows they’re cheaters,” Kelly said in 2021. “They know they’re cheaters. It’s over. …But now they mess it up by ruining other people’s lives, so they (bleep) twice. …When you pollute someone’s name to save your own, this is one of the worst things you could probably do. … I think I will be irritated forever.”

Rest assured, the feeling is mutual.

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