After the Boston Red Sox cleared one hurdle, winning the American League Division Series, they immediately face another:

Defending World Series champion Houston.

“I don’t know too much about them,” quipped Boston Manager Alex Cora after the Red Sox ALDS win over New York.

Of course Cora knows the Astros, having been their bench coach last year – a year when Houston beat Boston three games to one in the ALDS.

Boston is better this year, with a major league-best 108 wins in the regular season. Cora knows better than to call Houston an underdog.

“What they did to the Indians (three-game sweep in the ALDS), that was impressive,” Cora said. “It seems like they’re playing their best baseball at the right time.”

And, frankly, a hot Houston Astros team is the favorite in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series, which starts Saturday night at Fenway Park.

Give the Red Sox credit for their record. Boston, with the addition of slugger J.D. Martinez and a MVP season from Mookie Betts, led the majors with 876 runs.

Houston scored 797 this season after leading the majors last year with 896. But the Astros’ pitching is greatly improved.

The Astros had a 4.12 ERA in 2017 (4.27 out of the bullpen). This year, Houston enjoyed a full season of Justin Verlander, added Gerrit Cole as a No. 2 starter, and made upgrades in the pen, including midseason additions of Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly. The result: a league-leading 3.11 ERA (3.03 out of the bullpen).

“They can pitch. They’re playing great defense. They’re swinging the bat well,” Cora said. “They’re a complete team.”

Houston won 103 games. The Astros played in a stronger division, top-to-bottom, than Boston, which feasted on the Orioles and Blue Jays for a combined 31-7 record.

While the Astros may have been in the shadow of Boston’s record run, Houston showed its might in the ALDS, outscoring the Indians 21-6.

Houston had its hands full in the AL West this year. On Aug. 20, Houston was 75-50, tied for first with Oakland, and the Mariners only 31/2 games back.

The Astros shifted into another gear, went 28-9 the rest of the way, and then took care of the Indians.

Boston, meanwhile, had a nine-game lead on Aug. 20, went 20-16 the remainder of the season, resting players and being cautious with injured ones.

The Red Sox got some mojo by beating the Yankees, especially the last two games in the Bronx. But the Astros are in a groove of their own.

It’s starts with pitching.

Verlander (2.52 ERA) pitched five no-hit innings against Cleveland before yielding two runs in the sixth.

Cole (2.88) limited Cleveland to three hits and one run over seven innings.

Dallas Keuchel (3.74) allowed two runs over five innings. Likely No. 4 starter Charlie Morton (3.13) did not need to pitch.

The starters did not have to go deep because Houston’s bullpen allowed four hits and one run in 92/3 innings.

Lance McCullers, a starter most of the year, pitched two scoreless relief outings. Collin McHugh pitched two hitless innings. Osuna, acquired from the Blue Jays, made two appearances (no runs, one save) and Pressly (once a Portland Sea Dogs reliever, acquired from the Twins) yielded only a walk in his two games (21/3 innings).

The Houston bats are on fire. The Astros batted .327 with eight home runs against Cleveland. World Series MVP George Springer, whose home run total (22) was down from last year (34), batted .429 against the Indians with three homers.

“I just think it’s one of those times where the lights get brighter, the stage gets a little bit bigger,” Springer said after Game 3.

The stage comes to Fenway Park Saturday.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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