Astros: Opening Series Preview vs. the Rangers

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Charlie Morton #50 of the Houston Astros celebrates with teammates after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in game seven with a score of 5 to 1 to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Charlie Morton #50 of the Houston Astros celebrates with teammates after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in game seven with a score of 5 to 1 to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The Astros will start their championship defense in Arlington on this Thursday in late March.

Opening Day is finally here! The day we’ve all been patiently waiting for since early November.

In case you have been hiding underneath a rock since the World Series, the Astros open the season against the Rangers on the road. A four-game set will set the tone before the defending champions return home for their first meaningful baseball game at Minute Maid Park since Game 5 of the World Series.

Without further ado, here are the pitching matchups for this Opening Series.

Game #1: Justin Verlander (2017: 15-8, 3.36 ERA) vs. Cole Hamels (2017: 11-6, 4.20 ERA)

Game #2: Dallas Keuchel (2017: 14-5, 2.90 ERA) vs. Doug Fister (2017: 5-9, 4.88 ERA)

Game #3: Lance McCullers (2017: 7-4, 4.25 ERA) vs. Matt Moore (2017: 6-15, 5.52 ERA)

Game #4: Gerrit Cole (2017: 12-12, 4.26 ERA) vs. Mike Minor (2017: 6-6, 2.55 ERA in relief)

Opening Day will feature one of the Astros’ aces, Justin Verlander, as he squares off against the Rangers’ ace, Cole Hamels. Hamels will look to regain dominance and lead the Rangers rotation, which went through a semi-rebuild this offseason. Verlander will be making his first Opening Day start as an Astro, which is also the tenth overall in his illustrious career.

And here is the lineup for the Astros and Rangers for Opening Day.

Dallas Keuchel in Game 2 of the season will face a familiar face in Doug Fister, who spent the 2016 season with the Astros. As you all know, Keuchel will be in an important contract year. His performance and durability this season will play a major role in future contract negotiations. Fister spent a short portion of the 2017 season within the Angels’ minor league system before joining the Red Sox down the stretch. In response to his performance in the second half of the season, Boston used Fister as a starter when the team faced off against the Astros in last year’s ALDS.

The third game of the series and season features the return of Game 7 starter, Lance McCullers. McCullers is not eligible for free agency like Keuchel, yet his performance and durability will be monitored closely. Mike Minor joins the Rangers on a three-year contract after spending the 2017 season with the Royals as their key left-hander out of the bullpen. Texas figures to use Minor as a starter this season, though.

The last game of the series features two new pitchers to their respective organizations: Gerrit Cole and Matt Moore. Cole was obviously the crown jewel of the Astros’ offseason. Moore comes over from the Giants following a disappointing 2017 season in the Bay Area.

A key factor to this Opening Series will be the Houston offense.

If the Astros can strike early against the revamped Rangers’ rotation, everything bodes well for the defending champions. As we all obviously know, the Astros would like to start the season strong and put the idea of a World Series hangover behind them. Quite frankly, the Astros should have the edge in every game with the strength of their starting rotation and arguably the best lineup in the majors. But anything can happen to start a season.

Here are few questions to consider in this series.

Can the squad meet up to all the hype?

The entire Astros’ roster seems to expect that another World Series championship is a strong possibility. After all, the team only got better in the offseason by upgrading the pitching staff. If they ignore the fear of having a World Series hangover and continue dominating their opponents like they did last year, I do not think many teams would be able to get in the Astros way.

How quick can the Astros offense turn on?

Both the Astros pitching and hitting cruised throughout spring training. But that is spring training. If the Astros offense starts strong and stays focused on what is ahead of them, the team will be successful and continue to dominate. The core needs to lead the pack. Jose Altuve needs to continue what he has done in the past. If Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman can remain in good health all season long, well, look out.

Does age play a factor in Adrian Beltre‘s potentially final season?

Beltre is 38-years old and turns 39 on April 7th. After accomplishing the feat of making the 3,000 hit club, it will be a big factor to the Rangers lineup if Beltre can continue to put up age-defying numbers and lead the team throughout the 2018 season. If the Astros’ pitchers can quiet Beltre’s bat, it is one less offensive threat that the team needs to worry about handling.

What type of changes has A.J. Hinch made strategically?

Last year in the World Series, it was obvious that the Astros pitching staff fatigued, some more than others. But the whole squad was definitely eager to close the season on the highest note, no matter what it takes. It will be interesting to see what Hinch does to try to eliminate the fatigue early on in the 2018 season. Chris Devenski‘s usage in the first few months is one example. Rumors have been going around that Hinch will also try a four-man outfield in certain situations to try to minimize damage at the most opportune times.

Next: A mock MLB power rankings and where do the Astros stand?

All Astros fans are eager for the season to start. Starting this series strong is key to continuing the momentum gained from last year.

**Statistics and information courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference**