CLEVELAND, Ohio — Two teams that were built for October baseball are ready to face off Friday in the American League Division Series, and for the Cleveland Indians, facing the defending champion Houston Astros is a challenge they welcome with aplomb.
Houston captured the regular-season series against the Indians, 4-3, outscoring the Tribe 45-29 in seven games. Greg Allen’s walk-off home run in the 14th inning on May 27 salvaged a split of the four games between the two teams at Progressive Field.
The season series was contested in the space of nine days in late May and included a handful of pitchers duels as well as a couple of blowouts that went in Houston’s favor. Manager Terry Francona said the Astros are a fun team to play because their lineup and pitching staff are both relentless.
“The one thing that I think they’ve really done for the last couple years is they play until it’s time to go home,” Francona said. “Sometimes you’ll beat them, but they might just have run out of outs. They keep coming at you. You’ve got to pay attention to detail, but they’re fun to play because they’ve got so many good players, so many good pitchers.”
Indians center fielder Jason Kipnis said you don’t have to look too hard to see similarities between Cleveland and Houston’s lineups and the strategies employed by both offenses.
“This year, we’re really good at swing-and-missing the least,” Kipnis said. “We put the ball in play. That’s something they did well last year and they’ll tell you that it helped them. Just putting the ball in play can cause a lot of runs and a lot of havoc for the other team.”
It’s a philosophy that has served the Indians well this season, leaning heavily on Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez at the top of their batting order for production. But Kipnis also said in the postseason, offenses like Houston’s learn to make adjustments.
“You need to have a long lineup,” he said. “You need to put up tough at-bats and get to the next guy. I’m sure they’re preaching the same thing.”
That productivity on offense can come from anywhere. Catcher Yan Gomes, one of the hottest Indians hitters in the final month of the regular season, said the postseason is about seizing momentum.
“Playoff baseball is different, anybody can get hot,” Gomes said. “At any point the momentum can shift and we just want to keep it on our side.”
Both teams have rosters loaded with All-Star talent and plenty of playoff experience. Kipnis believes this might be the best roster Cleveland has put together heading into the playoffs in the last three years in terms of talent, health and depth. Healthy pitchers including Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco along with sluggers such as Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson give added dimensions to the roster that were not present during previous playoff runs.
“We just have a bunch of extra stuff that we didn’t have in ’16 and ’17,” Kipnis said. “Top to bottom pitching and everything, this might be the best roster we’ve had.”
Kipnis said the Astros are a good matchup because they play well in all facets of the game. He characterized the pairing as one of the most even series in the first round.
“They’re aggressive,” he said. “They really have from top to bottom maybe the most athletic lineup and they have a lot of confidence. It’s going to be a lot of fun to lace it up and get on out there.”
Veteran reliever Andrew Miller said Houston’s lineup is unrelenting from top to bottom, but he has faith that the Indians’ pitching depth can neutralize Astros hitters in a short series.
“It’s pretty strong throughout,” Miller said. “They’re one of the best teams in baseball, they’ve shown that over the last two years. Our hands are going to be full and it’s not going to be easy. But we’ve got some pretty good arms. We’ll be prepared, we’ll be ready.”