The Pallilog

After finally dispatching Rays, Astros get long anticipated showdown with Yankees

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It wasn't inevitable, but an Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series was the most likely pairing and most anticipated matchup in the AL playoffs. We get the payoff starting Saturday night. More on it a couple of paragraphs down. But first…

Credit to the Rays for pushing the Astros the distance in the Division Series. Ultimately, more credit to the Astros for their championship caliber response with their previously mostly dormant offense exploding for four runs in the bottom of the first of Thursday night's decisive game five. That was more than enough for Gerrit Cole who was overpowering and brilliant in both his starts in the series.

There have been postseason series pitching performances that go down as greater than Cole's but only in best of seven series. For one pitcher to so dominate a best of five? The top challenger that comes to mind there victimized the Astros. In a 1998 NLDS Kevin Brown throttled them twice. In game one Brown threw eight innings of two hit 16 strikeout shutout ball, then on three days rest he pitched into the seventh inning giving up just one run. The Padres won both games 2-1. Brown gets bonus points for snuffing an Astros' 1998 offense which was tremendous, vastly superior to the Rays' offense Cole destroyed. On the other hand, Brown didn't start a game with his team facing elimination.

The clear on paper edge for the Astros over the Yankees is in starting pitching. The Rays pushing them five means neither Cole nor Justin Verlander goes in the series opener Saturday night. Zack Greinke was a disaster in his start at St. Petersburg. While it's not redemption he pitches for in game one the Astros could really use him to pitch at least decently. The Yankees are going to score runs. Their lineup is spectacularly deep, power laden top to bottom even more so than the Astros' lineup, and patient. Pitch counts in Cole's and Verlander's starts loom important. The Yankees rate the clear edge out of the bullpen, it's better and deeper.

If it is to be a seven game series, Greinke going in game one works out fine for the Astros. It's highly unlikely the Astros again use a starting pitcher on three days rest, so Greinke sets up for games one and five, Verlander for games two and six, and if the Astros have another winner takes all game coming, Gerrit Cole would start it again, at Minute Maid Park again, after he goes in game three at Yankee Stadium.

Two years ago in the ALCS between these two the home team won all seven games. That is unlikely to happen again, but a reprise of Astros in seven seems a quite viable guess/prediction. From the 1920s forward, the Yankees have gone no decade without reaching at least one World Series. The Astros can snap that near 100 years run over the next week and a half.

With the Dodgers out in the National League some will talk of Astros-Yankees as the de facto World Series. That of course is stupid. Whoever wins the NLCS between the Nationals and Cardinals will obviously be capable of winning, but the AL Champ will be the rightful favorite.

Texans can make a statement

After five games we really have no idea what to make of the 3-2 Texans. A phenomenal offensive showing against the Falcons last Sunday came just one week after a pitiful offensive showing against the Panthers the week before. The Falcons stink. The components of Texans' offense are really promising. A healthy Will Fuller not dropping balls makes him more dangerous to defenses than DeAndre Hopkins. The offensive line will probably continue its ups and downs, but starting rookie first and second round picks means the up percentage should grow as the season goes along. Overpaying in draft picks for Laremy Tunsil is problematic down the road, but he is a vast upgrade anchoring Deshaun Watson's blind side.

Excellence requires consistency. We should have a better grasp of what the 2019 Texans might be after these next two Sundays as they play at Kansas City and Indianapolis. This past Sunday night the Colts largely shutdown the Chiefs' usually sensational offense and did so with a banged up defense. Patrick Mahomes was gimpy and mortal looking. Splitting these two games would be fine, if you had your pick the Colts game should be the choice since it's a division game. If somehow the Texans win both to be 5-2, they become the lead horse in the race in the race for the second AFC first round playoff bye. Losing both is more likely than winning both.

Buzzer beaters

1. Who knows how the game will go but Texas +11 is the side to play vs. OU. 2. Lock of the weekend: Daryl Morey goes this weekend Tweet-less. 3. Greatest single series pitching performances since 1980: Bronze-Mike Scott 1986 NLCS Silver-Madison Bumgarner 2014 World Series Gold-Randy Johnson 2001 World Series

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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