The last time Liam Hendriks stepped on a playoff pitching rubber, he was starting down the mound at the top of the Astros batting order: George Springer, José Altuve, Michael Brantley.
Strikeout. Pop out. Fly out. Ballgame.
It was the 2020 American League Division Series, and Hendriks, now the White Sox closer, was wearing Athletics green. He threw three shutout innings in the A’s only win against the Astros in the best-of-five series.
“One of the things that I think the Astros have done really well is they have a very cohesive unit,” Hendriks said last week. “And you look at what they have been able to do in the playoffs, and they have a very good playoff team. That’s what we’re going up against.”
This year, it’s the White Sox’ turn to face the Astros in the ALDS. They open the series on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
The matchup sets up a standoff between White Sox manager Tony La Russa and Astros manager Dusty Baker, brief teammates and longtime rivals.
“I think he would agree that our bond is that we have two outstanding teams,” said La Russa, 77. “And if we had both had been managing teams that weren’t this outstanding, then we’d be watching on TV. I think it’s important to recognize our good fortune to be involved with these two teams.”
The ALDS also gives the White Sox another chance against a team they fared poorly against in the regular season. The Astros swept the White Sox in a four-games series at Houston in June, before the White Sox won two of three at home in July.
This time, however, the White Sox offense is at full strength. They were missing outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez when they played the Astros in the regular season, and catcher Yasmani Grandal was out for the home series.
Here’s what the White Sox are saying about their ALDS opponent:
Reliever Evan Marshall: “You give them credit where credit's due. You hate to, but there's some serious thump in that lineup. Mike Brantley's got one of the best eyes in the league. They're pretty balanced with the righties and the lefties.
“But we are a different team now with, certainly, the MVP-caliber play we've had out of our center fielder (Robert) and our shortstop (Tim Anderson) and Eloy coming back and being so good. We are definitely a different team now. We've added Craig (Kimbrel) in the back end of the 'pen.
“They didn't have (Alex) Bregman when we played them … so that's certainly a boost for them. They had Abraham Toro then, who's now with the Mariners, but he actually did some damage against us. So, slide him out, slide Bregman in -- it's another good player.
“Houston's a good team, but this time of year, anything can happen, and we're certainly not dreading it. We're confident in what we can do, especially how well we've been playing lately.”
La Russa: “Outstanding. Look at their success over the past several years. Guys that know how to play. And they play the whole game: they defend, they run the bases, they take good at-bats. You can see they’re among the top as far as putting the ball in play.
“But we match up well with them. And they’re dangerous to play against, and we’re dangerous to play against. I think it’s going to be a competition that both teams will really enjoy. We’ll see who comes out best.”
Grandal: “It's a fact that they've had a lot of experience in the playoffs and they've made deep runs, as we've seen in the past, and that goes a long way. You're not going to intimidate a team like that, you're not going to put pressure on a team like that.
“I've been on teams that had deep runs in the postseason, and I know exactly what goes on. And all they're waiting for is for you to make a mistake, and they're going to take over. All you have to do is play your game and allow them to almost sit back and wait for you to make a mistake and hopefully, they make the mistake before we do.”
Southpaw Dallas Keuchel, who played for the Astros 2012-2018: “We're fully invested in going to Houston and at least getting one, squeaking out one win, and coming home in a tied series. But that place is loud. It's a dome, the fans there are very knowledgeable, they love baseball and they know certain situations when to get loud, when to get extra loud. We'll have our hands full, but I really do like our chances, so we'll see.”