A friend and former umpire has a phrase he likes to use when ordering another round of drinks: “Sprinkle the infield!”
This is a “sprinkle the infield” kind of League Championship Series round. Astros-Red Sox, which begins tonight at Minute Maid Park, is a rematch of the 2018 ALCS and the third postseason meeting of those two clubs in the last five years. Braves-Dodgers, which begins Saturday night at Truist Park, is a rematch of a fantastic 2020 NLCS in which Los Angeles recovered from a 3-1 deficit to break the heart of the Braves.
But just because we’ve seen these matchups before doesn’t mean we know what’s coming next. Every game, every series, every season is its own entity, and anything can happen.
So in what can only be described as a fool’s errand, here are nine predictions of what’s about to transpire as we prepare to sprinkle the infield and find out who’s headed to the 2021 World Series.
1. We will see vintage Chris Sale
It says a lot about how the last few weeks have gone that Sale getting Boston’s Game 1 start is a shock. Prior to that announcement by Alex Cora on Thursday, it was an open question whether Sale would serve as a starter or a reliever in this series. Though his return from Tommy John surgery this summer initially went well, Sale seemed to lose his fastball command and his confidence in his changeup in September, and he didn’t make it past the first inning in his ALDS start against the Rays.
The Red Sox say Sale has identified a correction to improve his balance on the hill. Maybe that’s true. Or for all we know, maybe Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta or Eduardo Rodriguez will be thrust into action by the second inning. We’ll see. A pitcher’s stuff can really be erratic in the first season back from TJ, and Sale’s going to have a heck of a hard time surviving against this deep Astros lineup if he doesn’t have the changeup to offset his fastball and slider.
But it feels like we’re due for a night when Sale reminds us again why he’s one of the best pitchers of his generation.
2. Welcome to the Gavin Lux Show
Not long ago, Lux was considered one of the top prospects in the sport. But a .233/.314/.368 slash through 532 career plate appearances has dulled the optimism.
Late in the season, however, we saw signs of Lux beginning to live up to his first-round pedigree. And in this postseason, he’s reached base five times in his 11 plate appearances, including the single that advanced Justin Turner into scoring position in the decisive ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants on Thursday.
While Lux has had a successful October, to date, he’s actually been a bit unlucky (unLuxy?). He’s had three batted balls of 99 mph or higher that went for outs. That portends to some big hits in his near future. The Dodgers have a couple key lineup pieces approaching free agency in Corey Seager and Chris Taylor. But by the end of this series — win or lose — it will be more apparent than ever that Lux is a big part of their future.
3. Chas McCormick will have a go-ahead or game-winning RBI for the Astros
I don’t know exactly which game, and I don’t know exactly how. But everything about McCormick — his great name, his rookie status, his relative anonymity (he was a 21st-round Draft pick), his potential increase in opportunity if fellow rookie Jake Meyers experiences any ill effects from the left shoulder injury he suffered in the ALDS — screams October hero in the making.
In a big situation, Boston will pitch around Kyle Tucker (because, seriously, why would anybody pitch to Tucker right now?), and McCormick, who had a solid .257/.319/.447 slash in 108 games this season, will come to the plate and come through. Hotcha, whoopee, and all that Chas.
4. The Astros and Red Sox will play the longest nine-inning game in postseason history
The time to beat is 4 hours and 50 minutes — a record set in Game 2 of last year’s AL Wild Card Series between the Yankees and Cleveland. (By the end of that one, even the cardboard cutouts were sleepy.)
Why are Houston and Boston good candidates to reach that record? Well, let’s just say they might be taking the time to change their signs every so often …
Oh, and as a sportswriter, I can tell you that this record-setting game will be Game 5 at Fenway, because the ALCS will go six games and baseball marathons almost always take place the night before a travel day. It’s science.
5. Joctober will continue
Joc Pederson left the Dodgers because he wanted to pursue an everyday opportunity elsewhere. But it’s his pinch-hit prowess — and his increasingly popular pearl necklace — that has been a difference-maker this month. Pederson’s come off the Braves’ bench twice to go deep, adding to a lengthy and impressive October track record in which he’s notched 11 homers and eight doubles in 158 at-bats.
Jorge Soler’s current absence will probably mean more at-bats for Pederson, and you know he’ll be geeked to face his former squad. This isn’t a bold prediction, but it’s kind of hard to predict anything other than a clutch Pederson homer at some point in this series.
6. Zack Greinke: Opener
Greinke has pitched just 7 1/3 innings in the last month, so he’s probably not stretched out enough to provide a traditional start with the Astros scrambling to fill the expected Lance McCullers Jr. void.
But it would be fun to see Houston go the opener route with Greinke. Come to think of it, he could potentially become the first pitcher who has served as an opener to reach the Hall of Fame. Let’s make that happen.
7. Will Smith will not homer off Will Smith
We had some fun with that last year, but it’s not going to happen again. Will Smith will face Will Smith twice in this NLCS. One of those plate appearances will end with the umpire calling a strike, the other with the umpire calling a ball.
Yes, that’s right: The Will Smith matchups will be decided by the Men in Black.
All right, time for the most important predictions …
8. The Red Sox will win the AL pennant
Look, not to brag, but I’m on the only MLB.com writer who batted 1.000 in predicting the outcome of the AL Wild Card Game and the two ALDS. And I’m serious: I’m not bragging. I only batted 1.000 because I pulled a George Costanza and went with the opposite of what I thought was going to happen. Turns out the best way to improve my predictive success was to disagree with myself. What a concept.
So let’s see if opposites attract again.
Boston over Houston was my pick using the opposite approach, and that pick is looking more defensible than ever with the Red Sox running hot, with Cora again putting on a managerial clinic as he did in ‘18 and with the Astros’ rotation potentially compromised by the McCullers situation. Maybe I’m underthinking it. Maybe I’m underestimating the remainder of this Astros’ pitching staff, which has surprised a lot of us with its ability to evolve and adapt the last two seasons. But McCullers is important enough to Houston’s chances that I’m sticking with the Sox.
Unless I’m now supposed to go with the opposite of my opposite pick. Frankly, I’ve lost track.
9. The Braves will win the NL pennant
My brother and I have this longstanding argument about whether the best team always wins. He says if you win a championship, you were the best team. I say life and sport are a capricious journey subject to the whims of timing and happenstance and weather and, um, unfortunate calls on checked swings.
We have 162 games to determine the best team. We have one month and a sequence of short series to determine a tournament winner.
The Dodgers just won an epic NLDS, an instant classic against their bitter rivals. We can quibble over whether that definitively means they are actually better than the Giants that outlasted them in the NL West. But there is no doubt that the Dodgers, now sitting on 110 wins and counting, are the best team still standing in this LCS field. Therefore, they are — and ought to be — the favorite to win it all.
But given the wear and tear and the emotional toll it took for the Dodgers to overcome the Giants in a series that went the distance, maybe Atlanta is set up for an upset here. After all, because teams aren’t reseeded in advance of the LCS, the Braves have the home-field edge. They have a playoff-tested and rested Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson atop their rotation (those guys have a combined 2.11 ERA over the last two postseasons). They have a 39-20 record since Aug. 1 (not Dodgers and Giants caliber, but just below). In the final two months of the regular season, the outfield GM Alex Anthopoulos rebuilt on the fly was outhomered only by the Yankees, and that makeover has made a team that already had an elite infield a more viable threat to go the distance than the overall season record would indicate.
So call me crazy or contrarian if you must. But I think it’s crazy to assume that the best team always wins. I mean, even The Freeze loses once in a while.