Tomase: We thought the Astros were unbeatable -- here's everywhere we were wrong

John Tomase
October 18, 2018 - 11:23 am

USA Today Sports

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I'll admit falling into the trap. The “Astros are the best team in baseball” trap.

I believed there was a chance the American League Championship Series would be over by now. The Astros went 21-6 in September and were widely proclaimed to be even better than last year's club that won it all. Say hello to the juggernaut. Say goodbye to the 108-win Red Sox.

Houston is one Andrew Benintendi dive away from being tied instead of down 3-1, so it's not like the Astros are being outclassed. But with the benefit of four games, it's now clear that we got a lot wrong about Houston. Here's a partial list.

1. The lineup isn't as deep as we thought

That bit about the Astros boasting a better lineup than the Red Sox, despite being outscored by 79 runs during the season, was simply wrong.

The Astros can be pitched to. Carlos Correa had a big Game 4, but he's not the same dynamic hitter he was a year ago, as evidenced by just one extra-base hit this series. Marwin Gonzalez can't hit a curveball and the Red Sox know it. Martin Maldonado is an automatic out. Yuli Gurriel provided no protection for Alex Bregman. Josh Reddick struggles with big velocity. Jose Altuve is limited by a knee injury.

Outside of Bregman, whom the Red Sox have clearly identified as the one man who won't beat them, and George Springer, the Astros simply don't provide enough threats one through nine. They certainly don't have anyone like Jackie Bradley Jr. doing damage low in the order. It has made a huge difference in the ability to attack the holes in the offense.

2. Houston isn't healthy

We saw their names in late-season box scores and we saw Houston winning, so we took it on faith that Altuve, Correa, and Springer had healed from the maladies that robbed each of chunks of their season. To varying degrees we were wrong.

Altuve can barely run, and it's easy to envision his career taking a turn in the direction of Dustin Pedroia if he's not careful. Watching him leg out a double on Wednesday night after trotting out of the box on what looked like a home run to left was painful.

Altuve can still swing it – Astros fans will wonder about his fan-interference non-homer all winter if they lose the series – but he's no threat on the bases and he can't play the field. A huge loss for Houston.

Then there's Correa. He's 6-for-15 in the series, but he hardly looks locked in, especially after recording only one hit vs. the Indians in the ALDS (albeit a homer). A year after hitting .315 with a .941 OPS, Correa dropped to .239-.728, thanks to back and oblique injuries. He still possesses a cannon at shortstop, but his range is limited. Once the most exciting young shortstop in baseball, he has at least temporarily ceded that title to Cleveland's Francisco Lindor and Boston's Xander Bogaerts, among others.

Springer has been dynamite, but even he's not fully right. He beat out a double in the ninth on Wednesday and lay on second base for a few extra beats. He has battled shoulder and thumb injuries, and on Wednesday he failed to complete a circus catch on a Christian Vazquez blast that nonetheless hit his glove.

The injured Astros remain dangerous, but the Correa and Altuve maladies are killers that we didn't adequately take into consideration.

3. The bullpen is only OK

Red Sox manager Alex Cora may have serious issues in the ninth inning with Craig Kimbrel, but he has at least discovered a reliable pair of late-inning arms in Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes. The latter threw maybe his two best curveballs of the season to freeze Tyler White with the tying run on second in the seventh.

The Astros, by contrast, have seen even their most trusted relievers falter, and manager A.J. Hinch doesn't seem to have a clear handle on where to turn when.

Flame-throwing youngster Josh James served up the game-winning two-run homer to Jackie Bradley on Wednesday. The previously unhittable Ryan Pressly loaded the bases in the same game before being lifted. Joe Smith served up the go-ahead homer to Steve Pearce in Game 3. Roberto Osuna was a disaster even before allowing a Bradley grand slam. Lance McCullers walked in a run. Astros relievers have walked eight and hit three in 15 2/3 innings. The Red Sox have made them pay virtually every time.

4. The back half of the rotation is weak

Based on reputation and season numbers, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton seemed like outstanding options at Nos. 3 and 4 in the rotation. But in reality, Keuchel has been reduced to a nibbling lefty who survives solely on guile, while Morton's late-season arm troubles meant he was never going to pitch more than three innings in Game 4 (he lasted 2 1/3).

At least we noted this over the weekend. Regardless, Keuchel's 2014 Cy Young Award and Morton's 15-3 record obscured harder truths about their recent performance. We should've known that the Astros viewed Games 1 and 2 in Fenway with twin aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole as must-wins for a reason: they didn't trust what came later.

5. Alex Bregman is even better than we thought

It's not all bad news for Houston. Bregman entered the series as Team MVP, but don't let the .182 average fool you. He's been the single toughest out in the series. Because Gurriel provided no protection, Hinch recognized the need to move Bregman to leadoff to give him a chance to see a pitch to hit.

His liner to left to end Game 4 on an elevated 97 mph Kimbrel fastball shows how ready he is to do damage when the Red Sox stray from their plan to live just off the outside corner.

Defensively, he has been a revelation. Each game could've been a lot more one-sided without Bregman making plays diving to his left and right and springing to his feet to unleash stunningly accurate throws. It's hard to believe he's not even the best defensive third baseman in his division, but that's how good Oakland's Matt Chapman was this year.

6. Shaky fundamentals

As defending champs with swagger, the Astros were assumed to be fundamentally sound, but that hasn't remotely been the case. Maldonado, a former Gold Glove catcher, has continually put runners in scoring position with wild pitches/passed balls that earned him a tongue-lashing from Hinch during a pitching change. Tony Kemp foolishly tried to stretch a single on Mookie Betts down three leading off the eighth and was gunned down. Gonzalez mystifyingly failed to even try to score from first on a two-out double into the right field corner with the Astros down two runs on Wednesday, a run that could've altered the rest of the game. Osuna hit a pair of batters with two-strike pitches before Bradley went deep. Correa failed to touch second base on what would've been a 6-3 double play.

The Red Sox have probably been given an extra half-dozen outs in the series, and they're the best team in the league at capitalizing. It's no stretch to say that the series hinges on these plays.

It's also no stretch to say we overrated the Astros, who are being put in their place by the best team in the league. Wish I could say I saw it coming.

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