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#pounditSaturday, August 8, 2020

Astros look poised for World Series repeat after sweeping Indians

Minute Maid Park Houston

The Houston Astros made quite the statement against the Cleveland Indians in a three-game sweep of the American League Division Series, winning the decisive Game 3 in a 11-2 blowout.

The Indians are not a bad team, even if they spent the bulk of the season feasting on the worst division in the league in the AL Central. They boasted four starting pitchers with 200 strikeouts or more, even if one, Trevor Bauer, was not in the postseason rotation. They had a lineup full of big names, including Francisco Lindor, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Ramirez.

The Astros, however, made it all look ordinary in several ways. They decisively beat good pitching. Their performance against ace Corey Kluber in Game 1 surprised many, but the depth of the Houston lineup poses a challenge to even the most talented pitcher. They had the luxury of hitting shortstop Carlos Correa sixth, masking his playoff struggles despite the fact that he’s an MVP-caliber talent when he’s producing.

That’s another big factor in Houston’s dominance. Correa struggled for much of the series, with his first hit of the playoffs coming in the form of a three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 3. By that point, they were on their way to a sweep anyway. The depth of the lineup can mask struggling hitters as long as someone gets hot, a role filled in the ALDS primarily by George Springer and his three homers.

Cleveland’s advantage in most other matchups would have been their aforementioned rotation, but the Astros have the horses to best them. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole both outpitched their Cleveland counterparts in the first two games of the ALDS, and while Dallas Keuchel left trailing in Game 3, he only gave up two runs and left the door wide open for Houston to come back. What should have been Cleveland’s big advantage was effectively neutralized, and it could be argued that the Astros won’t face another rotation as good during the remainder of their playoff run.

Even just keeping it close proved enough for Houston, as what was once a weakness of theirs has been molded into a strength. The 2018 Astros’ bullpen is much more stable than last year’s version, when frequent Ken Giles meltdowns left Houston piecing things together far too often for their liking. Houston’s bullpen had the best ERA, WHIP, and batting average against of any relief unit in the majors in 2018. Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Collin McHugh have all seen to that. Such is Houston’s depth that Hector Rondon, who entered September with an ERA hovering just north of two before a handful of mid-month meltdowns, was left off the ALDS roster entirely. He could return for the ALCS, but the fact that they could comfortably leave him off without regretting it speaks to how much better this unit is now than in 2017. The contrast with Cleveland’s bullpen, which struggled all year and sprung more leaks during the playoffs, was stark.

You have to squint to find any weaknesses with Houston, and they should be favored the rest of the way, at least in the AL. The Red Sox have demonstrated that their bullpen will have real issues getting to Craig Kimbrel, while the Yankees lack the starting pitching depth to match Houston. In the NL, Milwaukee’s depth pales in comparison to Houston’s save for the bullpen, while the Dodgers and Braves have some question marks of their own.

At this point, the Astros should be considered favorites to repeat. They were utterly dominant against Cleveland, and there’s no sign that they’re going to slow down anytime soon.

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