The mighty Houston Astros are not always dominant, despite their 101-61 record.

Against left-handed starters, Houston is 21-23.

Boston’s best two starters are lefties – Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz.

Then there is the X-factor, left-hander David Price.

Price will not be starting, because of his season-long struggle with injuries. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. In nine career postseason starts, he is 0-8 with a 5.74 ERA.

But as a reliever, Price could make all the difference for Boston, which begins a best-of-five American League Division Series in Houston on Thursday.

Deep and powerful bullpens have been a key to playoff success in recent years, as evidenced by the Kansas City Royals (AL pennants in 2014-15) and Cleveland Indians (2016). Last year the Indians’ Andrew Miller earned MVP honors in the AL Championship Series, primarily as a middle reliever. Price figures to have a similar role for Boston this fall.

After his latest trip to the disabled list, Price returned Sept. 17. It was his first regular-season relief appearance since 2010.

“We knew the calendar was ticking away,” said Boston Manager John Farrell. “We felt like (the bullpen) was the most logical path for him to come back to us.”

In five relief appearances (82/3 innings), Price has allowed three hits (all in one game), two walks and no runs. He struck out 13.

“He’s adapted extremely well,” Farrell said. “He’s been pivotal in this role.”

The Red Sox have wanted Price to be pivotal since they signed him to a $217 million, seven-year deal before the 2016 season. Price was fine enough in 2016 (17-9, 3.99 ERA), but had another dismal playoff start (31/3 innings, five runs) in a loss to the Indians.

He began this season on the disabled list because of a forearm strain, not making his first start until May 29. The forearm became a problem again and Price went back on the DL after his July 22 start.

Meanwhile, Price became aloof with the media, often refusing to talk. He confronted reporters in a loud, angry exchange in early June. In July, on the team plane, Price mocked and cursed Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Fame pitcher and popular Red Sox TV analyst.

The news about Price was all negative. Could Price make it in Boston? That question was followed by concerns about his ability to adapt to a bullpen role when he finally returned. He is answering those concerns.

“Yeah, it’s been a challenging year for him, by his own admission,” Farrell said. “But you know what? He’s a talented pitcher and we’re using him at the right time.”

And Farrell is using him more often.

Price pitched 11/3 innings on Sept. 27, then 12/3 innings on Sept. 29, followed by an inning on Sept. 30.

Those last two appearances came against the Astros – no hits, one walk, four strikeouts.

Before the Sept. 30 game – an afternoon contest following Price’s Friday night appearance – Farrell said Price would not be available.

But with no outs in the seventh inning and runners on first and second, Farrell signaled for Price to protect a 5-2 lead. (Farrell explained later that Price declared himself fit and ready if needed.)

Price got out of the jam, facing four batters – groundout, strikeout, walk and a strikeout of dangerous George Springer on three fastballs.

“That was a critical inning, a critical juncture in the ballgame,” Farrell said.

That game against the Astros was a sample of how Farrell will use his bullpen in the playoffs. Carson Smith relieved Pomeranz in the seventh and was ineffective. Farrell then went to Price, Addison Reed and closer Craig Kimbrel.

Pomeranz had thrown a 1-2-3 sixth, or Farrell might have opted for the bullpen sooner.

“From the sixth inning, we’re in an out-to-out, hitter-to-hitter approach,” Farrell said.

Farrell will look for the right matchups against Houston, which has the best offense in baseball (.823 OPS).

Jose Altuve is the AL batting champion, but he is 0 for 5 against Smith and 1 for 8 against Reed. Alex Bregman, who crushed Doug Fister last week, does not have a large sample size against Red Sox pitching, but he is 0 for 2 against Joe Kelly, with a strikeout. Red Sox left-hander Robby Scott has not faced many Astros, but left-handed batters have only a .121 average against him.

Farrell could be walking out to the mound often.

Reed likely gets the eighth inning, and Kimbrel, obviously, the ninth.

Then there is Price. He could be used in any crucial situation. Price did it as a rookie with Tampa Bay in 2008. In Game 7 of the ALCS, he struck out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning with the Rays leading 3-1. Price pitched the ninth inning, too, for a pennant-winning save.

Price crushed the Sox then. Now, nine years later, he might be the difference-maker for Boston.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @ClearTheBases

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