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Gerrit Cole and the Astros’ Pitching Mowed Down the Rays. What Will Happen When They Face the Yankees?

The 6-foot-4 strikeout machine turned in another dazzling start in a decisive Game 5 on Thursday. Now, his team’s attention turns to a matchup with New York.

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Of course the Astros weren’t going to lose on Thursday. Of course they weren’t going to blow a 2-0 series lead to a fierce but inferior Tampa Bay team, with Gerrit Cole on the mound, at home, in a decisive Game 5. Of course they would advance to the ALCS for the third consecutive season.

And of course Cole fulfilled every expectation of his magical right arm, delivering eight innings of one-run ball as Houston avoided any anxieties in a 6-1 win. In the bottom half of the first inning, Houston teed off on Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, opening the frame with four singles and a double, and that was all the run support Cole needed.

Houston could have stopped after just the first two runs, frankly. Aside from a solo Eric Sogard homer in the second, Cole was simply untouchable: two hits, two walks, 10 strikeouts, and not a single runner in scoring position all night. If he wasn’t as overpowering as in Game 2—when he struck out 15 via a playoff-record number of swinging strikes—any decline came only at the margins. Otherwise, the game was an exact repeat of the last time Cole bamboozled the Rays’ bats for the better part of a game, cementing his status as the best pitcher of the 2019 postseason.

Houston hadn’t won a game since that first Cole start, dropping both games in Tampa as its vaunted rotation sputtered. But Cole would partake in no such collective failure. Counting Cole and Glasnow, there have now been 113 instances of a pitcher making two starts in a single division series. Here are Cole’s ranks, out of those 113, in a handful of selected categories:

  • Strikeouts (25): First
  • Strikeout percentage (46.3 percent of batters faced): First
  • WHIP (0.57): Second, behind now-teammate Justin Verlander, then a Tiger, against the 2013 A’s
  • ERA (0.57): Ninth, because he had the gall to allow a single run, the slacker

So Houston advances—of course—to play the Yankees—of course, as well—in a matchup of the AL’s two best teams. The NL-best Dodgers might have suffered a shocking division series defeat on Wednesday, depriving baseball fans of the chance to enjoy a best-versus-best World Series, but the ALCS will now provide the next best thing.

These two powerhouses have been on a collision course all year long, and they have played like it since March. In the regular season, they were the two best AL teams by run differential, and the two best by overall record. Houston won 107 games, a franchise best; New York won 103, its highest total since 2009, when they won the World Series.

Houston boasts the majors’ best lineup—the second-best in MLB history, by one useful advanced stat, behind only the 1927 Murderer’s Row Yankees. New York placed second to Houston, and that was with stars like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton missing time with injuries. In the next round, eight of the nine projected starters for both teams posted a regular-season wRC+ of at least 113 (meaning offensive performance 13 percent better than average); Didi Gregorius and Josh Reddick were the only underperformers.

Houston has the starting pitching advantage, with Cole, Verlander, and Zack Greinke, though the Yankees’ trio of James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino combined to hold Minnesota’s potent offense to just four runs in an ALDS sweep. And New York has the bullpen advantage to help even out the pitching, with a quintet of reliable relievers, while Houston—again, thanks to Cole—didn’t really need to turn to its bullpen’s underbelly in any of its ALDS victories.

In addition to overlapping strengths, both teams have the same obvious weakness, as they face questions about the fourth starter slot. New York’s ALDS sweep meant Aaron Boone hasn’t had to answer that question yet—an opener followed by J.A. Happ seems the most likely possibility—while Houston used Verlander on short rest to ill effect in its first stab at a Game 4.

Because the Astros used Verlander and Cole this week, they will likely line up their rotation with Zack Greinke in Game 1, Verlander in Game 2, and Cole in Game 3, meaning all three pitchers would be able to pitch twice if the series goes seven games. This is the benefit of a rotation with three aces: Even with some shuffling from the ALDS order, manager A.J. Hinch can rest easy knowing he’ll have an All-Star ready to start six games.

Beyond an anticipated series for the quality of the 2019 clubs, this ALCS represents a rematch of an entertaining 2017 series. That ALCS, which Houston won in seven games, was packed with dramatic moments: José Altuve’s sprint around the bases to win Game 2, a late Yankees comeback in Game 4, two Verlander masterpieces (including the most recent playoff complete game for any pitcher), and Lance McCullers’s 24 consecutive curveballs to close out Game 7. The home team won every game, and Houston, with a league-best 60-21 home record this season, has the opportunity to take that advantage again this year.

The 2017 series came at a different place on these teams’ trajectories, though. The Astros hadn’t yet won a World Series or fully proved the efficacy of their extreme roster building methods; the Yankees were just a year removed from selling at the trade deadline for the first time in memory, thrilled just to advance that far in the first place. The rosters were remarkably different, too, in key places: Gleyber Torres was a top prospect; Yordan Álvarez hadn’t yet reached Double-A; Cole was a Pirate, Stanton a Marlin.

New York’s starting lineup in Game 7 included at least four players—Greg Bird, Starlin Castro, Todd Frazier, and Chase Headley—who won’t play in the rematch, with a fifth (Aaron Hicks) questionable after not playing since early August due to injury. Of the Astros’ 12 pitchers in that 2017 series, just two—Verlander and Will Harris—were on the ALDS roster against Tampa. Heck, Jacoby Ellsbury played and scored a game-tying run.

The 2019 versions of these teams seem more fully actualized and matured. The top prospects are all major leaguers; the rotations are more secure; the lineups are deeper and more balanced. If the 2017 ALCS determined which of these clubs would reach a World Series first, the newest meeting seems like just another entry in what is sure to be a lengthy October rivalry.

This series projects as a close one, despite Houston’s home-field and rotation advantage. Tampa proved Houston’s potential fallibility in Round 1, and the Yankees should prove better able to hit Cole (or at least try) than the Rays’ roughly average offense. And the 2017 ALCS, after all, deserved to go seven games: The Astros won, but the Yankees actually outscored Houston (22-20), posted a significantly higher OPS (.621 to .565), and could have easily won if, say, Gary Sánchez hadn’t dropped the ball when Altuve raced toward home to take Game 2.

This time around, the ALCS may well hinge on more close plays and bobbled balls. Or Cole and Verlander and Greinke might mow through the Yankees’ lineup and send the favored Astros back to the World Series with ease. Cole, at least, is prepared to do so twice: He hasn’t lost a start since May or struck out fewer than 10 batters since August 1. He’s a free agent this winter, seemingly adding an extra “0” to his upcoming contract with every dazzling October start. Of course he’ll continue that streak, no matter the opposition.