ALCS Preview: Astros, Yankees gear up for Goliath vs. Goliath showdown

A matchup two years in the making pits baseball’s two best teams against one another with a trip to the World Series on the line.

The Houston Astros were pushed to the brink by the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS but held strong to win in five games. The New York Yankees rolled the Minnesota Twins in a convincing sweep. Now the American League title will be decided in a best-of-7 series between two clubs that combined for 210 regular-season wins.

Considering they’re more or less the two best offenses in baseball, the Astros and Aaron Boone’s “savages” are evenly matched at the plate. Gleyber Torres has a match in Jose Altuve. Alex Bregman has DJ LaMehieu. Didi Gregorius has Carlos Correa. Aaron Judge has George Springer.

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The Astros ranked first in team batting average during the regular season. The Yankees were fourth. The Yankees were first in runs scored. The Astros were third. The Astros had an MLB-best .848 team OPS. The Yankees were third at .829. New York hit the second-most homers. Houston had the third-most.

In this series, the separation comes from the pitching. Houston has the star power in the rotation, namely Cy Young frontrunners Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander along with Zack Greinke. New York’s biggest arms are in a bullpen led by Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton.

This series seemed like it’s been inevitable since Opening Day. New York is a decade removed from their last World Series appearance, and the Astros had to go through the Yankees to win their first title two years ago.

SCHEDULE

Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 12, in Houston, 8:08 p.m. ET (FOX)

Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 13, in Houston, 8:08 p.m. ET (FS1)

Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 15, in New York, TBD, (FS1)

Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 16, in New York, TBD, (FS1)

Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 17, in New York, TBD (FS1)

Game 6*: Saturday, Oct. 19, in Houston, TBD (FS1)

Game 7*: Sunday, Oct. 20, in Houston, TBD (FS1)

* if necessary

Gleyber Torres and Gerrit Cole helped their teams to the ALCS with great performances in the first round. (Getty Images)
Gleyber Torres and Gerrit Cole helped their teams to the ALCS with great performances in the first round. (Getty Images)

PREVIOUSLY

The Yankees have tangled with and been the victims of the modern Astros empire twice in the past few years. Dallas Keuchel outdueled Masahiro Tanaka in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, and the Astros came back from the brink to win the 2017 ALCS and eventually their first World Series title. But the Astros won the regular-season series, 4-3, including a sweep at Minute Maid Park in April. New York claimed all three of their wins at Yankee Stadium.

PITCHING MATCHUPS

Game 1: Masahiro Tanaka vs. Zack Greinke

Game 2: James Paxton vs. Justin Verlander

Game 3: Gerrit Cole vs. Luis Severino

Game 4: TBD vs. TBD

Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 6*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 7*: TBD vs. TBD

* - if necessary

Verlander had Jekyll and Hyde performances in the ALDS, with the transformation apparently rooted from the first start he ever made on three-days rest in his 15-year career. Cole was spectacular in each of his first-round outings, but Houston’s inability to put the Tampa Bay Rays away sooner should prevent Cole from appearing before Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. Greinke got the news he was traded shortly after his last appearance with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which took place at Yankee Stadium. He was excellent down the stretch with the Astros, but fell apart quickly against the Rays at Tropicana Field. Wade Miley and Jose Urquidy are candidates to start Game 4, likely with a short leash and a long list of relievers to follow.

Tanaka, Paxton and Severino combined for four earned runs and 19 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings in the ALDS. Tanaka, who owns a 1.54 career ERA in the postseason, and Paxton didn’t need to be pushed in either of their starts, and Severino’s outing was only his fourth of 2019. The Yankees’ bullpen can come in and pick up the pieces in the fifth inning or sooner and still be at full strength through the end of the game. But in a best-of-seven series, New York could use some more length from their starters. J.A. Happ is the likely Game 4 starter after only receiving mop-up duty in the ALDS. CC Sabathia’s return should provide some help at least in long relief.

Oct 7, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Giancarlo Stanton (27) looks on during pre game batting practice before game three of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. (USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 7, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Giancarlo Stanton (27) looks on during pre game batting practice before game three of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. (USA TODAY Sports)

YANKEES KEYS TO VICTORY

  • Hit the ball out of the park. Verlander and Greinke, in particular, showed they were vulnerable to the home run in the ALDS. Verlander gave up the third-most homers among qualified pitchers (36), and the Yankees fell one long ball short of an MLB record with 306 regular-season home runs. New York only hit five homers in the ALDS, but they’re well-equipped to do the one thing with which the Astros’ three aces struggle.

  • Keep the game close enough to make the most of the bullpen talent. The Yankees’ bullpen, a unit that held a 2.03 reliever ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the ALDS, is steady enough to hold the advantage in the later innings. If the starters can limit the damage, the relievers should keep a lead intact. Chapman (hand) and Britton (ankle) both appear healthy enough to contribute in the ALCS.

  • Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton need to join the party. Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius and Aaron Judge did most of the heavy lifting against the Twins while Stanton and Sanchez were limited to a single each. The pair drew seven walks but have too much power potential to be silent against the Astros.

Oct 8, 2019; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) walks on the field during batting practice before game four of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. (USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 8, 2019; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) walks on the field during batting practice before game four of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. (USA TODAY Sports)

ASTROS KEYS TO VICTORY

  • Ride the aces as far as they can go. Cole pitched into the eighth inning in each of his starts, and Verlander completed seven frames in the Astros’ Game 1 victory. Any team’s best version of its pitching strategy involves the starter handing the ball directly to the closer. But the Astros have the horses to actually pull it off.

  • Score early but avoid offensive dry spells. Houston put four first-inning runs on the board in their Game 5 victory against Tampa Bay. But then they failed to put a runner on base until the fifth, didn’t record another hit until the seventh and didn’t score again until the eighth. That won’t work against a team with the Yankees’ bullpen. Houston averaged less than four runs per game in the ALDS. That also needs to improve.

  • Make the most of the home-field advantage. In their previous ALCS matchup in 2017, the home team won each of the seven games. Things were very similar in the regular-season series, and Houston is back in the driver’s seat now. The Astros won 60 games at home, a feat which was last accomplished by the Yankees 21 years ago.

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