BOSTON -- As the Boston Red Sox took the field for their workout Friday, the day before the opening game of their American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, the sun suddenly broke through a dreary gray sky and shined a dazzling light on the perfect checkerboard cut of the outfield grass at Fenway Park.
I take that as a sign from the baseball gods: We're about to get a playoff series for the ages.
The Red Sox won 108 games, a franchise record for one of the most storied organizations in the sport -- and they're not even favored to win the series. The Astros are the defending champions and won 103 games behind their star-laden lineup and an even deeper pitching staff than last season. It's the first meeting of 100-win teams in a championship series since 1977. It's the first meeting of 103-win (or more) teams in any playoff series since the 1942 World Series. The 211 combined victories of the two teams is tied for second-most in any playoff series, behind only the 212 of the Yankees and Padres in the 1998 World Series.
The rosters are dripping with exciting, talented players -- Mookie Betts is the likely AL MVP, Jose Altuve was last year's MVP, J.D. Martinez chased a Triple Crown, Alex Bregman emerged as one of the game's best all-around players. As a bonus, we get Justin Verlander facing Chris Sale -- both Cy Young candidates --- in the opener of the best-of-seven series.
"I think it's the two best teams playing against each other," Bregman said. "So it's going to be fun. You've got two of the best fan bases in baseball, two of the best pitching staffs, two of the best offenses going at it."
With this showdown, there is no need for extra motivation, no chips on the shoulder required to help you focus, no Sinatra songs needed to celebrate in victory. It's the best versus the best, the pennant on the line, the journey that began in spring training now at its most intense.
"You've got a chance to win four games and go to the World Series and win eight games and get a ring," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. Of course, there is another reward in ultimate victory: "Like I joked with [the players], but it's true, that check in December is a good one."
Cora received a fat World Series check last year after serving as bench coach for the Astros. Most of the Astros won a ring, but the front office didn't sit on last season's roster. There are 10 players on their championship series roster -- including five new to the organization -- who weren't on the World Series roster. The Astros' run differential improved from plus-196 to plus-263. "Last year -- I thought we have the best team we could ever have," Altuve said. "And then we show up this year. And on paper the team looks way better." Indeed, the rotation went from sixth in the majors in ERA to first and 17th to first in bullpen ERA.
It all begins Saturday night, forecast as a chilly night at Fenway, with Verlander and Sale, two of the game's elite starters, in a rematch of last year's Game 1 in the division series, when Sale struggled. With today's emphasis on bullpens, it's a throwback storyline to the not-so-recent past when starting pitchers were the key to postseason success. "I think it's just better for the game," Sale said. "It's kind of one of those things were you have this starter versus this starter, against these lineups. ... This is more, I guess, the traditional way to play the game, and the way I like to play the game."
Verlander, still going strong at age 35, finished 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA and led the AL with 290 strikeouts and the majors in lowest OBP allowed. He recovered from a midsummer blip when he struggled with home runs to pitch well in September, and then held Cleveland to two runs in 5⅓ innings in the ALDS. Sale didn't pitch much the final two months of the regular season as he rested a sore shoulder, but finished 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 237 strikeouts in 158 innings. He won Game 1 of his ALDS against the Yankees and then pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4. It's just the fourth matchup in Game 1 of a championship series featuring two pitchers with ERAs below 2.55:
--2018 ALCS: Justin Verlander (2.52) versus Chris Sale (2.11)
--1985 NLCS: Fernando Valenzuela (2.45) versus John Tudor (1.93)
--1975 NLCS: Don Gullett (2.42) versus Jerry Reuss (2.54)
--1972 ALCS: Catfish Hunter (2.04) versus Mickey Lolich (2.50)
The difference between this matchup and those other three, however, is that Verlander and Sale have long been two of the best pitchers in the game. Since Sale became a starter in 2012, they rank third and fourth in the majors, respectively, in WAR among pitchers.
Verlander, after finally winning a ring last season, also has the opportunity to cement his legacy as an all-time great with another big postseason run. "I don't think about that," he said. "I try not to until it's brought to my attention. That's not why I pitch. That's not why I play the game. I play the game because I love it and I love competing.
"These are the biggest moments against the best teams and the brightest lights. It's the best time to compete. So I've always just been kind of like 'Finding Nemo,' [like] Dory -- just keep swimming. That's me: Just keep pitching. ... And at the end of my career, hopefully when I look up and all is said and done, that's cemented my legacy."
The Red Sox led the AL in runs scored. The Astros -- with that historic performance from the pitching staff -- led in fewest runs allowed. The Astros had the best results in the majors in limiting damage against fastballs. The Red Sox are one of the best fastball-hitting teams in the majors. The Red Sox have home-field advantage, going 57-24 at home, best in the majors. The Astros had the best road record at 57-24.
"We definitely love playing in front of our fans at Minute Maid Park," Bregman said. "We feel like we play well there. When I saw the Red Sox had the best home record and we had the best road record ... it's the same exact number. I mean, we'll see. The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away. And as far as we're concerned we've got to go out and get Game 1. And if we get Game 1, we've got home-field advantage."
Indeed, it feels like the Red Sox have to win Game 1. Obviously, they don't have to, but their odds would seem to decrease dramatically with a loss -- and that would put even more pressure on David Price in Game 2 as he tries to win his first game as a starter in the postseason. He's 0-9 in 10 career starts.
The Astros are the first reigning World Series champ to win 100 games since the 1990 A's. They're trying to become the first team to win consecutive World Series while reaching 100 wins both years since the 1977-78 Yankees. The Red Sox are trying to stop them and make their own history.
The stage is set for an epic seven-game series. Now the players just have to deliver.