HOUSTON — Welcome to the marquee matchup of the postseason.
Houston Astros vs. the New York Yankees.
The series America has been craving starts Saturday at 8:08 p.m. ET at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
These two teams combined for 210 victories during the regular season, marking only the seventh time in history that two 100-victory teams will meet in a series before the Fall Classic.
There will be plenty of star power with 11 players in the All-Star Game, and everywhere you look, there are MVPs, Cy Young winners and rookies of the year.
Why, the Astros could run the table in the individual awards just this year with Justin Verlander winning the American League Cy Young award, Alex Bregman winning the MVP award, and Yordan Alvarez winning the Rookie of the Year.
It has been that kind of year for the Astros.
Incredibly, the one guy who won’t win an award, likely losing out to Verlander in the Cy Young race, is Gerrit Cole.
He just so happens to be the most indispensable player in this ALCS.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole reacts after a double play. (Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
The Astros could become the first team since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals to win 100 games in three consecutive season that culminate with at least two World Series titles.
“I think everybody in here,’’ Bregman says, “knows that we have a chance to do something extremely special.’’
Game 1: Yankees RHP Masahiro Tanaka (11-9, 4.45 ERA) vs. Astros RHP Zack Greinke (18-5, 2.93 ERA)
Game 2: Yankees RHP Yankees LHP James Paxton vs. Astros RHP Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA)
Game 3: Yankees RHP Luis Severino (1-1, 1.50 ERA) vs. Astros RHP Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50 ERA)
Game 4: TBD vs. Astros Jose Urquidy (2-1, 3.95 ERA)
Game 5 (if needed): Tanaka vs. Greinke
Game 6 (if needed): Paxton vs Verlander
Game 7 (if needed): Severino vs. Cole
Welcome to the fiercest starting postseason rotation since the Detroit Tigers in 2014 with Max Scherzer, Verlander and David Price. They somehow were swept by the Baltimore Orioles.
The Yankees hope to pull off the sequel.
They don’t have the starting pitching to match up, but intend to dominate the Astros with their star-studded cast in the bullpen, led by All-Star Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees aren’t going to use eight relievers in a game like Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash did in Game 5, but they are well-rested. Chapman has pitched only seven times spanning seven innings and 114 pitches since Sept. 1. If they have a lead in the fifth inning, they believe they’ll close the door for the final 12 outs with a combination of Chad Green, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle.
“I think it’s clear the bullpens will have to get important outs,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “You would expect some close games. Some games that come down to the end where if you’re going to be able to win a ball game you’re going to have to close it out. So obviously we lean on our bullpen heavily.
“Even though starting pitching is obviously very important …but usually when we look back at the end of these things the teams that are able to close out leads keep on advancing.’’
ALCS REMATCH: ‘It’s been brewing’
NLCS: Why Cardinals will beat Nationals in NLCS
And, yes, the Astros are well aware of the Astros’ bullpen prowess.
“It’s a good one,’’ Astros All-Star outfielder George Springer said. “And it’s going to be a grind. They can control the zone. They all throw very, very hard, have good secondary pitches, and they’re smart. So it’s not going to be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.’’
KEEP AN EYE ON
Minute Maid Park and Yankee Stadium
Minute Maid Park can be a house of horrors for visiting teams. The Astros went a franchise-record 60-21 at home, and won 32 of their last 40 games at home. They also have been accused of espionage at their digs, and maybe it was just a coincidence, but Rays starter Tyler Glasnow believes he tipped pitches that resulted in four first-innings runs.
The Yankees lost all three postseason games at Minute Maid Park in 2017, and were winless again in Houston in their three regular-season games.
“Clearly the Astros have obviously shown that they have a real home-field advantage here,’’ Boone said, “not only this year but even going back now a few years. And I think a lot of us are aware of how loud this place can be.”
Then again, it’s hardly a treat playing at Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees went 57-24, including an insane 20-0-3 in their last 23 home series.
“It’s very, very hard to play there at any time of year, let alone October,’’ Springer said. “It’s a crazy atmosphere. I’ll never forget when Gary Sanchez hit a bases-clearing double or close to that (in the 2017 ALCS), and I honestly thought the stadium was going to fall over. It was loud.”
No one will confuse Yankee Stadium with Minute Maid Park, but those folks can get awfully loud with the roof closed and 43,000 screaming fans waving orange towels all game.
Masahiro Tanaka, who will start Game 1 for the Yankees, says he’s already prepared for the crowd noise.
“One thing I can say is that we’ve been here in 2017,’’ he said. “We know what it’s like in here. So I think that experience will definitely help going into the game.’’
THE X FACTOR
The Astros made the biggest splash at the trade deadline by acquiring Greinke from the Diamondbacks, believing he would put them over the top. Greinke, a six-time All-Star, immediately delivered, going 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA, winding up with 18 victories.
He was hammered in his first postseason start in Game 3 of the Division Series, yielding six runs in 3 ⅔ innings, but now they need him the most. He’ll be starting Game 1 simply because the Astros weren’t about to start Verlander on short rest, and Cole pitched on Thursday.
“Obviously, he didn’t have the start he wanted, or we wanted in the Tampa series,’’ Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said, “but if there’s anybody that doesn’t show anything that fazes him, it’s Zack Greinke. He’s as cool and calm and collected as can be. I have all of the confidence in the world in him. He’s done well against those guys this year (1-0, 2.13 ERA, with 14 strikeouts in 2 ⅔ innings in two starts).
“He has the confidence and we have the confidence as well.’’
If Greinke gets into early trouble, Astros manager A.J. Hinch says, he’ll still be given plenty of leeway to get out of it.
“As far as margin of error,’’ Hinch said, “he’s got the same margin for error that he’s had for having a league-leading ERA the last few years, approaching 20 wins and Cy Youngs. And his margin for error the last 100 starts that he’s made has been the same. What I’ve learned over the last few years here is every pitcher has a smaller margin for error that you can possibly imagine against elite teams.’’
IN THE END
The Yankees have a big, powerful, strong and scary starting lineup who can beat you 1-9. They led the major leagues with 943 runs with 306 homers, the second-most in MLB history.
The Astros have a big, powerful, strong and scary starting rotation who can beat you 1-3. The Astros struck out the most hitters in baseball, 1,671, and permitted the second-fewest runs (640).
The Yankees and Astros have met three times in the last five years in the postseason, and during those five years, the Astros lead the series, 22-20, with the Yankees outscoring then, 105-102.
This year, the Astros won four of seven games against the Yankees, winning all three at Minute Maid Park in April, while the Yankees won three of four at Yankee Stadium.
So the biggest difference in this series may be the fact the Astros have home-field advantage, just like in 2017, when they lost all three road games, but won all four games in Houston.
The Astros are trying to make history while the Yankees are trying to buck history.
The Yankees last won the World Series in 2009, and if they don’t reach the World Series, it will be the first decade in franchise history they haven’t played in the Fall Classic.
ASTROS IN 6.