HOUSTON – A three-time World Series winner, Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa certainly couldn’t be nervous as his team prepares for the opener of a best-of-five AL Division Series against the Houston Astros on Thursday.
Except he is — and it has nothing to do with the Hall of Famer being out of the dugout for almost a decade before the White Sox hired him prior to this season.
“I’ve been nervous my whole career,” La Russa said Wednesday. “Right now, I’m nervous because I care. ... If you’re not nervous, then do something else for a living.”
The 77-year-old La Russa returns to the postseason for the first time since winning the 2011 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals before retiring. He’ll send Lance Lynn to the mound in Game 1 to face Houston right-hander Lance McCullers Jr.
Lynn had a splendid year in his first season with Chicago, going 11-6 with a career-low 2.69 ERA in 28 starts. McCullers also had a career year, setting personal marks in wins (13), ERA (3.16) and strikeouts (185).
“I feel like what I bring to the table, I have the ability to pitch with anyone,” McCullers said. “I’m excited to just get out there and give my best effort for the guys.”
It’s the second time these teams have met in the postseason. The White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series when Houston was still a member of the National League.
Lucas Giolito is set to start for the AL Central champion White Sox against left-hander Framber Valdez on Friday in Game 2.
And in the dugout, La Russa will face an old foe in Houston manager Dusty Baker, a fellow septuagenarian who’s still chasing that elusive first title.
“You know how I really feel inside,” the 72-year-old Baker said. “I need it, and I got to have it.”
The AL West champion Astros are playoff tested in their fifth consecutive postseason trip. They’re looking to advance to the World Series for the second time in three years.
They’ve been to the AL Championship Series four straight years and came a win shy of reaching last year’s World Series before being eliminated by Tampa Bay in seven games.
Houston slugged its way into the playoffs by leading the majors with a .276 batting average, .339 OBP, 863 runs and 1,496 hits.
“I love everything about this team. There’s nothing I dislike,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I think we’re built for a championship, and we’ve just got to take care of business for us to accomplish that.”
The White Sox have reached the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history and are intent on doing more than last year, when they were bounced by Oakland in the first round.
“Last year definitely made guys... hungrier,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “I definitely didn’t like the way that Oakland treated us when we were out there. I’m definitely hungry to get back in the postseason and compete some more (because) that left a bad taste in my mouth.”
The Astros took five of seven in the regular-season series, but both teams agree those results are immaterial this week.
“At this point our record against them guys don’t really mean nothing because it’s straight ahead now and the record’s 0-0,” Anderson said. “So, we’ll just see what happens.”
The White Sox should get some help in this series from Carlos Rodón after the All-Star left-hander was slowed by arm trouble late in the season. Chicago general manager Rick Hahn has said Rodon will pitch just once during the series, but it’s unclear when that will be.
Rodón enters the postseason after setting career highs for wins (13), strikeouts (185) and ERA (2.37). He was great against the Astros this year, going 1-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 18 strikeouts in two starts.
Another question mark entering the series is the status of 2020 AL MVP José Abreu after the first baseman didn’t travel with the White Sox to Houston because he was experiencing flu-like symptoms.
The team said he was feeling better Wednesday and he would fly to Houston on Wednesday night. Abreu had multiple tests that confirmed his illness wasn’t COVID-19.
La Russa wasn’t sure if Abreu would be ready for Game 1 but said he was “certain” he’d return for Friday’s game.
An odd wrinkle to this series could be both teams using a Cy Young Award winner out of the bullpen. The Astros are expected to pitch 2009 winner Zack Greinke in relief, and the White Sox could use 2015 recipient Dallas Keuchel, who helped Houston to its only title in 2017, out of the bullpen.
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