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Astros Opening

According to FiveThirtyEight, the White Sox' 24 losses in 42 games decided by one run this season threaten to sideline our South Side ballclub in its post-season quest even before it begins Thursday in Houston. The prognostication website gives the Sox just an eight percent chance of flying a World Series championship banner for 2021 at The Grate. That's like 25 tries and two successes.

Meanwhile, the Astros are given a 12 percent rating to go all the way. Is Houston really four percentage points better than Tony La Russa's talented outfit? This requires further examination.

Let's begin with that one-run deficit which would indicate that the Sox aren't good at winning the close ones. You might think that after 62 years the bitter taste created by the failure of a team that could win the close ones would be gone by now. Unfortunately, those synapses remain intact.

You see, in 1959, the pennant-winning White Sox were 35-15 in one-run outcomes. Yet in the World Series against the relocated Los Angeles Dodgers, three games were decided by a single run, and the Dodgers won two of them. In another 5-3 contest, LA also emerged as the victor, which explains how the Sox were disposed of in six games.

If nothing else, this tidbit of Sox lore indicates that the post-season is a rebirth where you can't rely on the outcomes of the past 162 games to necessarily predict the October results. There are surprises galore. Fringe players can become heroes. The smallest of miscues can turn around an entire series. The unpredictability is why we watch.

What sometimes can dictate the outcome in these short series is a talented bullpen, as in getting a slim lead and turning the game over to the relievers - or starters pitching in relief roles - to protect that edge.

For instance, look at the two championship series' and the World Series from a year ago. A total of 20 games were played with, obviously, 40 starting pitchers of whom 29 pitched less than six innings. Only one, Lance McCullers, Jr. of the Astros, whom the Sox will face Thursday, completed seven innings of work.

We can't negate the work of the starting pitchers in a short series, but the performance of the entire staff is what wins or loses these encounters.

According to Monday's Sun-Times, manager Tony La Russa and his coaches are considering putting as many as 15 pitchers on his 26-player playoff roster. His top seven relief pitchers of Liam Hendriks, Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, Ryan Burr, Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera have a combined ERA of 3.13 this season. It's a formidable group with Crochet and Bummer being lefthanders.

Houston's bullpen's ERA this season is 4.06, although their top five relievers have posted a 3.38 mark. The Sox appear to have a tad more depth in their bullpen, but the Astros still can trot out hard-throwing, effective relief pitching along with veterans like Jake Odorizzi and Zack Greinke, who has been activated after being idled with a sore neck. Depending on his condition, Greinke also could wind up starting a fourth game.

In the starting pitching department, McCullers will face Lance Lynn on Thursday - unless La Russa flip flops Lynn with Lucas Giolito - in a match-up of very similar righthanders who rely on sweeping sliders as their best pitch. McCullers has spent his entire six-year career with Houston, posting a 13-6 record this season with a 3.16 ERA (3.52 FIP). He's pitched in eight post-season series' so he's no stranger to playoff baseball. Nor is Lynn. who has appeared in a dozen series with the Cardinals and Yankees. Thursday's game figures to be a tight, low-scoring game where every play contributes to the outcome.

La Russa in all probability will use Dylan Cease to round out his Top Three. Houston's probable starters after McCullers figure to be Framber Valdez and Luis García, not exactly household names in these environs. Like McCullers, both Valdez and García have pitched only for Houston at the major league level. Valdez is the lone lefthander, and the Sox played .595 ball (25-17) against lefty starting pitching this season. However, in three starts against the Sox in his career, Valdez has split two decisions while posting a somewhat respectable 1.25 WHIP.

In games this season in which Lynn, Giolito and Cease have started, the Sox are 51-40. When McCullers, Valdez and García take the ball for Houston, the 'Stros are 46-34. Like so much about this series, neither team appears to have a noteworthy edge.

With the Central Division locked up the final two months of the season, much of the conversation has been focused on getting home-field advantage for the Sox in the playoffs. Of course, it didn't happen as the Astros, aside from owning the tiebreaker thanks to a 5-2 season's advantage, beat out the locals by a couple of games.

Since the All-Star Game, Houston's record is 40-31, thanks to a mark of 22-11 at home compared to 18-20 on the road. The Sox numbers in the same period are 39-34 and 22-14 at home and 17-20 in away games.

We'd like to forget the four-game sweep La Russa's guys suffered in Houston on June 17-20. The Sox were dominated by a 27-8 count, and three of the games were started by Cease, Lynn and Dallas Keuchel. Forget the fact that Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert were idled by injuries. The Sox played bad baseball.

When the Astros came to The Grate immediately after the All-Star break, the Sox competed again without Jiménez and Robert but also were missing Yasmani Grandal. Yet they took the final two games of the three-game series, outscoring Houston 14-1 behind Giolito and Carlos Rodón.

The optimists among us tend to dwell on those two most recent contests rather than the earlier games between this week's foes. The lone surety is that the White Sox will have to win at least one game in Houston, a clear challenge but stranger things have happened.

One of the White Sox most glaring weaknesses this season has been an inability to stymie the running game of their opponents. In the season-ending series against the Tigers last weekend, Detroit attempted nine stolen bases in the three games and were successful on all of them. The primary culprits are Sox pitchers who must have missed the drills on holding runners close and using a slide step on deliveries to the plate.

The good news is that Houston is not a running team, having stolen only 53 bases all season, good for 27th among all clubs.

Teams that hit like the Astros depend far more on the three-run homer than stealing second base. And this is where many analysts draw the line between the White Sox and Astros. Houston scored more runs this season (863) than anyone. Their OPS of .784 ranked second and their slugging percentage of .444 was third.

The Astros' home, Minute Maid Park - Coca-Cola is paying the ballclub $100 million over 30 years - has earned its nickname, The Juice Box. The distance to the wall down the left-field line is just 315 feet ,while right field measures 326. Most clubs playing 81 games in that park are going to put up some healthy numbers.

However, the White Sox aren't exactly impotent. Their 796 runs ranked 7th in MLB, and the Sox' .336 on-base percentage was third in baseball and just a few ticks behind, ahem, the Astros' .339, which was the top number.

What all this amounts to is that arguments can be made for each of these teams to win this series. And for each one, we have a "Yes, but" to counter.

History tells us that pitching and defense more often than not rule a short series. Pitchers, especially in this age of 100-plus fastballs and out-of-this-world breaking pitches, tend to silence even hitters who have had banner seasons.

History also reveals that a booted ground ball, a misjudged pop-up, a missed cut-off man, a baserunning gaffe, or a passed ball tend to be magnified far more in a best-of-five encounter than over a 162-game schedule. If the Sox are eliminated early next week, chances are a careless mistake will be the culprit.

The match-up of the top six hitters in the Sox lineup - Tim Anderson, Robert, José Abreu, Grandal, Jiménez and Yoan Moncada - compare favorably to Houston's top six. Gavin Sheets, Leury García and Adam Engel all are capable of delivering meaningful contributions. As mentioned, Sox pitching, even with some late season injuries and Rodón's iffy status, doesn't need to take a back seat to the fellows Houston will showcase.

It will be those little nuances and subtleties of the game that will determine who advances. And chances are good it will require all five games to reveal who keeps playing and who goes home.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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