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AP photo by Tony Gutierrez / Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora smiles as he responds to questions during a news conference before Thursday's workout in Houston. The Red Sox and the Astros are set to open their AL Championship Series on Friday night in Houston.

HOUSTON — Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was counting on a rematch with his former team even before the Houston Astros advanced to the American League Championship Series for the fifth straight year.

Houston shortstop Carlos Correa got that message Monday, when Cora told him "See you soon."

The Astros assured their place the next day, closing out the Chicago White Sox in Game 4 of their AL Division Series.

Now that this matchup is set and will begin Friday night, Cora, the former Houston bench coach, will look to take down the Astros in the ALCS for the second time in four years after the Red Sox beat them in 2018 on the way to a World Series title.

"I'm enjoying the groove," Cora said. "I think honestly, as a team, we're clicking at the right time ... and it doesn't matter how you get here, it just matters what you do from here on, and we're prepared for it."

The red-hot Red Sox beat the rival New York Yankees in the wild-card game and earned a trip to Houston by upsetting the 100-win Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in a wild ALDS that included Boston's 13-inning win in Game 3 and a walk-off victory in Game 4.

Cora helped Houston win the 2017 World Series as a member of A.J. Hinch's staff, then managed Boston to the 2018 title after disposing of the Astros. He was let go by the Red Sox after Major League Baseball's investigation into Houston's sign stealing scheme, then suspended by MLB through the 2020 postseason before getting rehired in Boston last November.

Asked about the reception the Astros might get from the crowd when the series shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Monday, Cora admitted that it feels weird when they're heckled because he was involved with the cheating. He doesn't feel like the scandal is in the past because he lives with it every day.

"I'm sorry, I made a mistake and I'm living it," he said. "It's uncomfortable because I know that when they get booed or they scream at them, I'm there. I was part of it."

The Astros are the third team in MLB history to reach a league championship series in five consecutive seasons, joining the Oakland Athletics (1971-75 ALCS) and the National League's Atlanta Braves (1995-99).

Dusty Baker didn't take over as manager of the Astros until Hinch was fired — Hinch was issued a one-year suspension by MLB for his part in the sign stealing scheme — but the 72-year-old skipper certainly been around long enough to know he has a team built for October.

"These guys take a lot of pride in winning, and especially the guys that have been here for a while," said Baker, who has also had stints leading the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. "They've been through a couple of back-to-back 100-loss seasons, and they like the feeling of winning and the feeling of being on top. And they think that they're supposed to win no matter how the series starts or the outcome."

The biggest question of the series is the status of Houston ace Lance McCullers Jr. The right-hander was masterful in a Game 1 win in the ALDS against the White Sox, pitching scoreless ball into the seventh inning. But he left Game 4 after four innings with tightness in his right forearm and was still being evaluated Thursday as the Astros tried to determine his availability for the series.

"He did go for an MRI, just precautionary to make sure everything's OK in there," Houston general manager James Click said. "So we're waiting for those images to be reviewed and getting examination on him, and we'll see where that goes."

A lot of people will weigh in on the decision, but Click said it will be "just ultimately about how Lance feels."

With McCullers out, the Astros will start Framber Valdez in Game 1 against Chris Sale. Game 2 in Houston on Saturday will feature Astros rookie Luis García against Nathan Eovaldi.

There was some question about how Sale would be used in this series after the seven-time All-Star permitted five runs in just one inning of a Game 2 start in the ALDS against the Rays. It was his 10th outing this year after returning from Tommy John surgery Aug. 14.

Cora said there would be no limitations on Sale.

"If we didn't feel comfortable, we wouldn't pitch him," Cora said.

What made Cora feel good about putting the 32-year-old left-hander back on the mound in such a big game after his recent struggles?

"It's Chris Sale," Cora said. "He's a big part of what we're trying to accomplish."

Sale, who also struggled in his last start of the regular season, said he felt "lesser than dirt" after Game 2. However, the support of Cora and his teammates helped get him in the right mindset to bounce back Friday.

He said he's been on the mound every day since his most recent start, trying to iron some things out. He believes he has rediscovered a changeup that was missing against the Rays and that he has solved the problems commanding his fastball.

"We'll see what we get," he said. "But I like where we're at."

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