Houston Astros

Astros remain the team to beat as they head off to the ALCS

The 107-win Houston Astros were the best team in baseball this season and are still favorites to win it all, even after a tougher-than-expected ALDS against Tampa Bay.

The Houston Astros got a bit of a scare from the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, but Gerrit Cole ensured in Thursday’s Game 5 that it was no more than that.

Cole had another dominant start — eight innings, two hits, 10 strikeouts — to lead the Astros to a 6-1 victory over the Rays at Minute Maid Park and a date with the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

The Rays had knocked around the previous two Astros starters, Zack Greinke in Game 3 and Justin Verlander on short rest in Game 4, to force the series to a fifth and deciding game after being down 0-2. Cole, though, and a first-inning offensive outburst, quickly put an end to any hopes the Rays may have had of pulling off the upset. The Astros scored four runs off Tyler Glasnow before two outs were recorded. The four-run deficit might as well have been 40 with Cole on the mound.

The 29-year-old right-hander is on the type of run that makes his teammates think, “We’ve got this one,” every fifth day. He hasn’t lost a game since May 22, a span of 24 straight starts including the postseason. He’s struck out at least 10 batters in 11 games in a row dating back to Aug. 7. He finished the year leading the AL in ERA, the most strikeouts by a right-hander in more than four decades, and the highest strikeouts per nine innings rate in history.

The one-two punch of Cole and Verlander that Houston can throw at opponents, especially in a short series, makes them favorites whenever they take the field. Verlander has lost just two games since the All-Star break. In Game 1 against Tampa Bay, he gave up one hit in seven shutout innings.

As the Astros were battling it out with the Rays, the Yankees have been sitting at home resting for the ALCS after easily putting away the Minnesota Twins. It was the most impressive team performance of any of the playoff contenders, as the Yankees completely shutdown the homer-happy Twins and dominated them with a deep lineup of sluggers that hit 306 home runs during the regular season.

The Yankees, winners of 103 games this season, are finally healthy and confident as they prepare to travel to Houston for Game 1 on Saturday after five days off. Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino are back in the lineup after missing most of the season. Aaron Hicks looks like he’s ready to return in time for the ALCS after missing more than two months. But the Yankees, with all their firepower, aren’t better than the Astros.

It starts on the mound. The Yankees have their own three pitching aces to send against Houston to counter Cole, Verlander and Greinke. The problem is that James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and  Severino all have their question marks.

Tanaka and Paxton have had problems with the Astros in the past. Houston hitters have 10 home runs off Tanaka. Jose Altuve, George Springer, Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman are all hitting above .270 for their careers against him. They saw Paxton a lot while the tall left-hander was playing for Seattle in the AL West; Springer has three home runs off him while Altuve is 10-30 and Carlos Correa is 9-22. Severino, meanwhile, has only pitched in four games all season, never going past the fifth inning.

Cole and Verlander, on the other hand, have dominated Yankees’ hitters. Current Yankees are hitting .195 against Verlander. Aaron Judge is 2-18, Gary Sanchez 2-19, Gleyber Torres 1-12 and Stanton 1-8. Against Cole they’ve fared no better: DJ LeMahieu is 2-18, Encarnacion 2-11. But they will potentially have to beat both of them twice in the ALCS. That’s a long shot under even the best of circumstances.

The Astros offense rediscovered its form after a frustrating few days in Tampa. Springer had just two hits in 17 at-bats in the series before beginning the offensive barrage with a single. Altuve hit three home runs in the five games against the Rays. AL MVP front-runner Bregman picked up right where he left off after a hot end to the season, hitting .353 in the ALDS.

Houston won the season series against New York 4-3, with each time benefitting from home field advantage. The Astros swept the Yankees in a three-game series in Houston back in April, while the Yankees took three of four when they played at Yankee Stadium in June. All of the games featured plenty of offense; only once did their respective pitching staffs hold their opponent to less than three runs.

The Astros have home field advantage in the ALCS as a result of winning 107 games. They also have history on their side. Since 1969, six of the seven teams to win at least that many games during the season went on to the World Series; five of them went on to win. The Astros were the best team in baseball all season long, something two bad days against the Rays didn’t change.

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Good luck, Bronx Bombers.

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