Red Sox-Astros series left us wanting more in October

What we learned from three games between the two best teams in baseball, the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros ...

The two best teams played three excellent games: There was a bit of an October feel to the series, in part because of the weather that suddenly turned cooler in New England. The games were more important for the Astros, with the Oakland Athletics breathing down their necks, but this was still a statement kind of series.

The best part was MVP candidates doing MVP things. Alex Bregman had two hits, a walk and two runs on Friday and homered on Saturday. J.D. Martinez hit a big three-run homer on Sunday. Mookie Betts was on base all weekend, with seven hits and four walks.

There was great defense, with Jake Marisnick making an outstanding running catch on Saturday with the bases loaded and Josh Reddick robbing Martinez of a hit on Sunday with a diving catch. We saw batters hitting away from the shift -- Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts -- and we saw Jose Altuve bunting for a single.

We saw Alex Cora use four pinch hitters in one inning. We saw the Red Sox avoid a sweep on Sunday with a walk-off win on Mitch Moreland's two-out blooper to left field in the bottom of the ninth.

The Astros' bullpen is better than you may think. A critique about the Astros most of the season is how this is a great team with a potentially leaky bullpen. The pen did suffer a few noteworthy blown saves, especially earlier in the season, but the closer situation improved with Hector Rondon and then the trade for Roberto Osuna.

The Houston pen leads the majors in ERA, lowest wOBA allowed and strikeout-to-walk ratio, while ranking second to the Yankees in strikeout rate. Astros manager A.J. Hinch feels better about his bullpen right now than at any point during the season.

"We've settled in nicely," Hinch said Sunday. "September always makes you feel good that you have enough people, but both the guys we've had before and the guys we've added have given us as strong a bullpen as I've had while I've been the manager here. Then you factor some of the newer guys and the outing yesterday with [Josh] James and it seems even more appealing. I have guys that I've relied on to pitch leverage innings who haven't gotten in a couple wins lately in Joe Smith, Chris Devenski, Will Harris."

No team can match Houston's depth. Collin McHugh has been terrific all season with a 1.96 ERA and 11.9 K's per nine innings, and Hinch showed how important he viewed these games when McHugh was warming up on Saturday in the fourth inning -- earlier than he had appeared all season. Hinch ended up not using McHugh, but the former starter gives the Astros a multi-inning asset and long man as needed. Remember that in October.

Ryan Pressly was acquired at the trade deadline, and he has bought into the Astros' philosophy of fastballs up in the zone, increasing his percentage of fastballs in the upper half from 46 percent with the Twins to 55 percent with the Astros. He has allowed two runs in 16⅓ innings with 23 strikeouts and one walk to pitch himself into a key role.

Then there's the rookie Hinch alluded to -- Josh James, a soft-spoken 34th-round pick from Western Oklahoma State College who came in Saturday with a 5-3 lead in the sixth inning pumping 100 mph fastballs as he threw 2⅔ scoreless innings. James was a starter in the minors and had big numbers with 171 K's in 114⅓ innings and a .188 average allowed. James did give up three runs in five innings while starting in his major league debut, but he could become a secret weapon down the stretch.

On the other hand, the Red Sox have bullpen issues. On Friday, Cora announced that Matt Barnes -- the team's most consistent setup guy all season who has averaged 14.2 K's per nine -- had an MRI on Thursday and was out indefinitely with inflammation in his left hip. That news came after Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly coughed up a 2-0 lead in a 6-3 loss. Brasier, a 31-year-old rookie, and Bobby Poyner, a lefty with a high spin rate on his fastball, are suddenly key members of the bullpen. Maybe they can do the job, but they have just 41 major league innings combined this season.

On Sunday, Rick Porcello left with a 5-2 lead, two runners on and two outs, but Heath Hembree and Brian Johnson quickly coughed up the lead, giving up doubles to Tyler White and Reddick that tied the game. Cora has three weeks to figure out who he can trust in front of Craig Kimbrel.

Cora explained Hembree's outing this way: "His slider wasn't good today ... threw a curveball that didn't do anything ... and then another slider that wasn't good. ... We didn't do the job, so we gotta keep working."

Does that sound like a manager with a lot of confidence in his bullpen? Cora also got Kimbrel up during the eighth inning, but the Red Sox got a double play to end it, and Kimbrel was set to start the 10th if Moreland didn't win it in the ninth. Cora admitted they are building Kimbrel up for four or five outs for late September -- an indication of how the closer will be used in the postseason.

The Astros need to get Carlos Correa going. It has been a trying year for the 23-year-old shortstop. He looked like an MVP candidate in April, hitting .330 with 21 RBIs, but he slowed down the next two months and landed on the disable list in late June with a back issue. He missed 36 games, and he has struggled since his return on Aug. 10, hitting .170 with one home run in 26 games. Hinch finally moved Cora down to fifth in the lineup on Saturday and Sunday, the first time Correa did not hit third or fourth all season.

Correa was the anchor to the lineup in October, batting cleanup in all 18 postseason games and hitting .288/.325/.562 with five home runs and 14 RBIs. Hinch is obviously hopeful that Correa will find his groove.

"It's amazing what a couple big hits can do," Hinch said before Sunday's game. "He hit a double to left-center; he hit a sac fly the night before. You start contributing to wins and the joy of going back to the batter's box quickly comes back to you. He's going to be in the middle of things."

I don't know is at third base: The Red Sox don't get much offense from the catcher position, and first baseman Moreland is hitting .193/.257/.345 in the second half, but the big lineup issue right now is at third base. The Red Sox started Eduardo Nunez at third base on Friday, Rafael Devers on Saturday and Brandon Phillips on Sunday. This isn't a case of Cora having three good options but being unsettled on his best one.

Devers and Phillips both made throwing errors, although neither ended up costing Boston a run. Devers, who came off the DL last week, leads all major league third basemen with 22 errors -- 11 throwing, 11 with the glove -- and has minus-12 defensive runs saved. Nunez has minus-5 in 450 fewer innings. Phillips, who beat the Braves with a ninth-inning home run on Wednesday, has primarily played second base in his career. If somebody was hitting, that would help Cora's decision, but Devers and Nunez really aren't.

Cora insisted Sunday the team isn't giving up on Devers.

"He's going to get at-bats," Cora said. "I don't know how we're going to do it. But he'll get at-bats. I can't say it's like once every three games or every day, but he'll get at-bats."

The Red Sox are 24th in the majors in wOBA at third (Nunez did have his best month in August), and right now, there is a lot of pressure on the top half of the lineup to do the damage. They need to get Moreland going again or get more from third base if they want to make an October run.

The Astros have more depth than last year: Hinch basically had a set lineup in October. Brian McCann started 17 of the 18 playoff games behind the plate, even as he struggled at the plate (.175 in the postseason). Now, Hinch can use Martin Maldonado to platoon or get a better defensive catcher.

Reddick started all 18 games, even though he hit .169 with just one extra-base hit, but now Hinch can mix and match in the outfield. The emergence of White lengthens the lineup, and supersub Tony Kemp can provide energy and on-base ability at the bottom of the lineup. Marisnick can start against lefties and is the team's best defensive center fielder.

In other words: The Astros might be even stronger than last season. Now they just have to hold off the A's and avoid that do-or-die wild-card game. If they can do that -- and the remaining schedule is pretty favorable -- they might enter October as the team to beat, even if though the Red Sox will end up with more wins. Then maybe we'll get a rematch in the American League Championship Series ... with Justin Verlander and Chris Sale pitching this time around.