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.
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
Zion Williamson had 27 points and nine assists, and the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the struggling Houston Rockets 127-105 on Thursday night for their eighth victory in nine games.
“We know what the stakes are,” said Williamson, who — if he remains healthy — is on track to compete in his first NBA playoff games this spring.
The latest victory improved the Pelicans to 34-22, good for fifth in the Western Conference.
Williamson, who has missed most of his first four seasons with injuries, has played in 45 games this season, leads New Orleans in points per game with 22.5, and looks rested after not being selected for last weekend's NBA All-Star festivities.
“At this point, I've got to win," Williamson said when asked about the opportunity to compete in some of the highest-stakes games of his career in coming weeks. "That's the only way to show people.”
Playing without high-scoring wing Brandon Ingram, who sat out with a non-COVID illness, the Pelicans got highly productive nights from their other four usual starters.
CJ McCollum scored 28 points, Jonas Valanciunas had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and Herb Jones had 17 points and a career-high seven steals for New Orleans, which led 63-50 at halftime and by as many as 29 points during the second half.
“Herb brings it every night — he really does — on both ends of the floor,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said of Jones, whose highlights included a driving dunk as he was fouled, three 3s and an alley-oop lob to Williamson. “When he has nights like tonight, where he's guarding everybody and getting steals, getting deflections, getting blocks, rebounding the ball, shooting the ball well, you can see how important he is to this group.”
Alperen Sengun had 20 points and nine rebounds for Houston, which has lost six of seven and played the last eight minutes with its starters on the bench.
"You have to take a little pride in guarding your matchup and knowing their tendencies and where they want to get to," Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “Especially Williamson – that’s what he does, forces his way to the basket; I think the blow-bys and straight-line drives were a little too easy for him.
"Even when we doubled him at times, he still beat the double teams,” Udoka added. “Our starters weren’t as sharp as we needed to be.”
Rookie Amen Thompson, the fourth overall pick in last summer's NBA draft, scored a season-high 22 points. Jalen Green added 10 points for the Rockets.
Green inserted Trey Murphy III into the starting lineup for Ingram. He scored 13 points, but the career 39% 3-point shooter struggled with his accuracy, missing 8 of 10 from deep.
The final meeting of the regular season between the Southwest Division rivals was a chippy one. Officials called 39 total fouls — 21 on the Pelicans — and had to step in to break up a brief fourth quarter scrum that resulted in technical fouls for Valanciunas and Reggie Bullock Jr.
“That's part of the game and I think there was a little frustration (from Houston), based on the score,” Green said. “But for us, it's being the more mentally tough team in between the lines. No matter what happens, we're not backing down from anybody.”
The Pelicans tied their season series with the Rockets at 2-2, thanks in part to the 28th double-double this season by Valanciunas, who did most of his scoring inside, but also hit both 3s he attempted.
Williamson, who routinely handles the ball and initiates the offense like a guard, had his fifth game this season with at least nine assists.
“We’re seeing Zion get better and better as the season progresses,” Green said. “This is what happens when you put the ball in his hands, especially early.”
Rockets: Host Phoenix on Friday.
Pelicans: Host Miami on Friday.