The Astros' title defense got off to a pristine start Friday afternoon. Houston bashed four homers and rode a strong start from Justin Verlander to a 7-2 victory over the Indians in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Here are three thoughts on the game:
Playoff Bregman is back
Alex Bregman opened the scoring of the Astros’ championship run last year with a solo homer off an ace in Game 1 of the ALDS—and he did it again on Friday. His first homer of the 2017 postseason came against Chris Sale in the first inning. This year, he waited until his second at-bat to go yard, launching a Corey Kluber sinker over the Crawford Boxes. Bregman’s five postseason homers since the start last year have come off of Sale, Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and now Kluber.
Bregman, who added an RBI single off Trevor Bauer in the seventh, underwent a transformation this year. As a 23-year-old playing his second season in 2017, he capped off his season by repeatedly coming through in big, late-game moments last October. His second home run off Sale tied ALDS Game 4 in the eighth. He drove in runs in each of the first five games in the World Series, punctuated by his 10th-inning walk-off single in Game 5. Still, he was just a complementary piece to the Astros’ core bats of George Springer, Carlos Correa, and AL MVP Jose Altuve.
That changed in a big way this season. Bregman added 100 points to his OPS (.827 to .926), hit 31 homers and a league-leading 51 doubles, also walking more than he struck out. With all three of Springer, Correa, and Altuve missing time due to injuries, Bregman became not just the Astros’ best player and an MVP candidate, but the emotional leader of the team as well. There’s room for improvement in his second postseason; despite all the big hits, Bregman batted just .208 in last year’s playoffs. If he stays red-hot going forward, Houston will be tough to beat.
This was a pitcher’s duel–until it wasn’t
Coming into this game, much of the focus was on the matchup between two of the AL’s best pitchers. Both Kluber and Justin Verlander were better pitchers in the first half of 2018 than the second. Kluber, especially, had questions to answer after his disastrous showing vs. the Yankees in last year’s ALDS. He lasted a combined 6 1/3 innings in two starts that series, yielding four homers and nine runs. Both starters came out sharp in the early innings, and it seemed like they might be set to battle deep into the evening.
Entering the bottom of the fourth, neither had allowed a hit. There were warning signs for Kluber, though, as he had just one strikeout the first time through the order. Bregman’s blast seemed to open up the floodgates. Kluber gave up a two-out RBI single to Josh Reddick in the fourth, then gave up back-to-back homers to Springer and Altuve to begin a fifth inning that he wouldn’t make it out of. All three homers he allowed came on mistakes left over the middle of the plate. His counterpart Verlander continued to deal until running into trouble in the sixth, loading the bases on a pair of hits and a walk. With his pitch count over 100, Verlander was pulled before he had a chance to complete the sixth.
Cleveland’s bullpen remains a problem
The Indians got right back into the game by cutting a 4-0 deficit in half in the sixth. Suddenly, a comeback seemed possible. In theory, they’d have three more chances to score a couple runs against pitchers not named Justin Verlander. The problem with that theory, however, is it required Cleveland’s bullpen to keep the deficit at two runs. This is a Cleveland bullpen that was worth 0.4 wins this year according to Fangraphs' WAR, fourth-worst in baseball. One of the main culprits of the bullpen’s awful year was closer Cody Allen, whose ERA was 4.70 in 2018 after being sitting under three for five straight years. He gave up a towering home run to Martin Maldonado in the seventh, the 12th homer he allowed this year.
Allen isn’t the lone reason for the Indians’ bullpen struggles, though. Andrew Miller spent time on the DL and wasn’t his usual self when healthy. Outside of Brad Hand and Oliver Perez, there just aren’t any other good options. Dan Otero came in for the eighth and gave up two sharp line drives and another run. The Indians are now in a tough 1-0 hole and will struggle to hold leads in this series if they get them.