The Astros are good. The Red Sox have learned this firsthand over the last couple of weeks, over which they’ve gone 1-5 against Houston, with another chance to lose Thursday. In the longer term, it looks, yet again, like getting to the AL pennant will run through the Astros in some way, and right now the Sox are not prepared to beat them.
If they are Boston’s boogeymen, the Sox are in good company. While Yankees fans still have choice words for Sox fans in and around the tri-state area (hello), their hatred for the Astros is palpable, and their hatred is encouraged by the team. I mean how else can you diagnose a situation where Brett Gardner was psyched up—and psyched out, as it happened, thankfully—to play Boston because their manager used to be on the Astros? The Sox are so much less actively hated by Yankees fans right now than the Astros as to make it not a contest.
Speaking of not a contest: The Yankees against the Sox, and the Sox against the Astros. This brutal stretch of the Sox’s season has been clarifying about the hierarchy of these particular teams, all of which have World Series dreams. Right now the Sox can’t hang with Houston, but the playoffs are not right now.
If Houston is Boston’s Boogeyman, so to speak, the way to beat them is to fight fire with fire. And the fire the Sox have in reserve goes by the name of Chris Sale and could make all the difference against the Astros in September and October, if everything goes right. Assuming good health, which I think is fair given the length of his absence, Sale’s return will be like adding an ace at the trade deadline, albeit one who needs to stretch out his innings to start, and no, not out of the bullpen. When you’ve got a weapon like that, you don’t wait to use it.
A Sox team with a healthy Chris Sale can, and should, beat anyone on any given day, even the Astros. That it only works out that way two-thirds of the time or whatever hardly matters. Right now, the Sox are entering games against Houston at a disadvantage—the disadvantage being that none of Boston’s surprisingly effective starting pitchers can seem to get anything past Houston’s hitters. I don’t even care if the Astros are cheating or not, frankly, for purposes of the exercise. What Boston needs is a pitcher so good he could tell the batters what’s coming and they still wouldn’t hit it. Sale is that guy.
To be clear, a Red Sox team with Sale would still probably be an underdog to these Astros given how well Houston has been playing, and with several games in Texas, yes, you don’t know what sort of shenanigans would be afoot. This must have been what every AFC team felt like for a decade-plus after SpyGate when they came to Foxboro. They didn’t just have to adjust for the talent gap; they had to prepare for extracurricular machinations real or imagined, but the preparation was very real.
So I’m not sweating these late spring losses, is the point, because this isn’t the Sox team that needs to beat back Houston. That one has Sale, Jarren Duran, maybe Joey Gallo, and has probably already won a playoff series. This one is studying Houston, looking for weaknesses while biding its time. When the 2001 Rams were running roughshod over the league, they played the Patriots mid-season and eked out a win, after which Mike Martz told his players they’d probably play the Patriots again in the Super Bowl. He was right. The story wasn’t over until the season was.
That’s how I feel right now. There is no reason to panic. Chris Sale is coming, and it could make all the difference.