Baseball’s regular season is a marathon. The playoffs are far different – especially in the first round. The American League Division Series is a sprint to three wins, and there is little room for error.

In any sprint, how you get out of the box can make or break your chances of finishing first. Last year the Boston Red Sox were defeated, 5-4, in Game 1 of the ALDS at Cleveland, a game started by Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello. The Red Sox never recovered, and were swept by the eventual pennant-winning Indians.

This year, the Sox feel they have an edge in Game 1 of the ALDS with the Houston Astros thanks to Chris Sale. Sale was the pitcher they added during the offseason to make them a World Series contender. He was supposed to join Porcello and David Price as the Big Three at the top of the rotation, creating a pitching staff with no equal in the American League.

Instead, Porcello suffered a league-high 17 losses, Price endured an injury-plagued season and is pitching out of the bullpen, while Sale joined Drew Pomeranz at the top of a shaky rotation.

While Sale gets ready for the first postseason start of his career, the Astros counter with playoff-tested ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 on Thursday. He’s made 16 career postseason starts, eight of them in the ALDS. He’s never lost a first-round game and has a sparkling 2.15 ERA in the first round.

The Sox are well aware of Verlander’s playoff success. In 2013 they saw him in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, and he handcuffed them over eight innings. Mike Napoli’s solo home run in the seventh inning was the only damage the Sox could manage against him.

The Sox won that game, 1-0, and went on to take the series in six games. By doing so, they managed to avoid facing Verlander again in Game 7. He pitched just one game in the ALCS after being used twice in a five-game win over Oakland in the first round.

Verlander pitched a combined 15 shutout innings against Oakland. He was dominant, and put the Tigers in a position to win the series. The Astros are hoping he can do the same for them in the coming days. It’s why they traded for him in August, taking on the remainder of his contract and putting him alongside Dallas Keuchel at the top of the Houston rotation.

A year ago the Red Sox hit the postseason confident in their offense, which led the major leagues in runs scored. The Indians had to pitch Trevor Bauer in Game 1 with ace Corey Kluber slated for Game 2. Boston lost the opener despite a 10-hit afternoon. A day later, Kluber and the bullpen held them to three hits in a 6-0 Indians win. By the time the Sox returned to Boston, they were facing an elimination game. The series seemed over before it started.

The 2017 Red Sox need to learn from that experience. An early loss can lead to an early postseason exit. Pitching wins playoff games – and ultimately championships.

In Game 1, the Red Sox feel Sale can hold his own against Verlander. They’ll need him to if they hope to make a deeper run this year.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.