HOUSTON — The favorites are wasting no time, eager to get on with it already.
All season, the Houston Astros and the Yankees have seemed destined to clash in the American League Championship Series. Now they are at the doorstep.
On Monday afternoon, the Astros will have a chance to finish a sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays in their division series. That night, the Yankees could do the same to the Minnesota Twins. It would set up a rematch of a rousing A.L.C.S. from two years ago, when the Astros edged the Yankees in seven games on the way to their first World Series title.
These Astros are even better.
In 2017, they did not have the ace Gerrit Cole, who overpowered the Rays in a 3-1 victory in Game 2 on Saturday. Cole fanned 15 across seven and two-thirds innings, allowing four hits and a walk, following Justin Verlander’s one-hit, seven-inning effort in Game 1. Neither ace allowed a run.
In the first 10 games of the major league playoffs, through Saturday, 12 of the 20 starting pitchers had failed to last more than five innings. The Astros’ manager, A.J. Hinch, has a different reality.
“We’ve got some pretty big boys that can pitch,” Hinch said. “Philosophically, whether it’s about the new-age opener or pulling guys the third time through, most of the people that support that haven’t had Verlander or Cole on their team.”
In Game 3 at Tampa Bay, the Astros will face their old teammate Charlie Morton, who closed out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. Morton would seem to give the Rays an edge, but the Astros will counter with Zack Greinke, a likely Hall of Famer who just had one of his best seasons.
“We’ve got Greinke, so we’ve got three aces,” said the Astros’ shortstop, Carlos Correa. “Every time they’re on the mound, they’re special.”
Collecting aces hardly guarantees a championship. Two recent teams that tried it — the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt) and the 2014 Detroit Tigers (Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello) — did not escape the first round.
But there is always a chance that Verlander, Cole and Greinke could be like the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres, who swept the Yankees in the World Series. Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, said he believed this team was his best.
“For me, I think so,” Luhnow said. “We definitely had concerns about our bullpen toward the end of ’17. Bullpens get challenged in October, but I think this version of our bullpen is the best that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and the starting pitching is the best it’s been, and the lineup is the best it’s been.”
The Astros became the first team ever whose hitters had the fewest strikeouts in the majors and whose pitchers had the most. Cole finished the season with a record streak of nine starts with at least 10 strikeouts, helping him amass 326 whiffs in all.
On Saturday, he threw a career-high 118 pitches, and the Rays rarely even had a chance. Cole induced 33 swings and misses, the most in a postseason game this decade. He artfully mixed his pitches: Five of his strikeouts came on fastballs, five on curveballs and five on sliders.
“He’s unbelievable,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who homered off Blake Snell for the Astros’ first run. “Seriously, he’s got the best stuff in baseball. He’s a bulldog on the mound.”
Cole was still throwing 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning, and struggled to explain how he did it.
“I’ve been doing it since I was 17,” he said. “It’s a blessing. I don’t know, I just do it. I mean, I did it all night. It’s just my fastball. I just throw it and it comes out.”
Cole is peaking at the perfect time — not just for the Astros, but also for his value in free agency. The last pitcher with more strikeouts in a postseason game was Kevin Brown, also in a division series in Houston, in 1998. Brown fanned 16 for the San Diego Padres, led his team to the World Series, became a free agent and got the first $100 million contract in major league history from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cole’s agent, Scott Boras, negotiated that deal for Brown. He will seek a bonanza for Cole this winter, and the Yankees will surely be interested. They drafted Cole in the first round in 2008, before he enrolled at U.C.L.A. Cole became the first overall pick by Pittsburgh in 2011, and has become a superstar in Houston.
“The talent was always there, and he’s in an environment with other players around him of his caliber, and I think that maybe has something to do with it,” Luhnow said, mentioning the presence of Verlander and the pitching coach Brent Strom. “Our entire approach is about simplifying and letting him be the best version of himself by throwing what works for him.”
No team is flawless; the Astros’ bullpen has wobbled in this series, and while it performed better than the Yankees’ bullpen this season, it is not as imposing. Both teams have deep and powerful lineups, and the Astros’ hitters not only had the majors’ fewest strikeouts, but also the most walks.
It is the rematch both teams have been waiting for, even if they cannot speak about it openly just yet. Hinch, at least, took a peek ahead late Saturday night.
HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — A gesture from a stranger allowed an Arkansas family to be at Saturday’s Astros game, in memory of someone they love.
Harold Westfall died suddenly two weeks ago from an apparent heart attack. He lived in Arkansas with his wife and two stepchildren, but he was an Astros fan for years.
“I didn’t know anything about baseball,” said his widow, Kristie Jester. “He told me that’s because you don’t have a team. I watched a game on T.V. with him, and I was hooked,” she recalled.
The family arranged for an Astros-themed casket spray for his funeral. She posted the picture on her Facebook page. It was reposted on the Houston Astros Nation page, which caught the attention of fan Jamie Joseph.
“It got to me,” Joseph said. “I believe in karma and whatever you do will come back to you. Do something nice for someone at some point every year. That’s what I’ve always done.”
At first, Kristie didn’t believe the offer, but then accepted. After a long drive from Arkansas, she, her son and daughter and niece arrived in Houston. “It brought back a lot of memories,” she said.
“It made me realize there are good and kind people in the world,” Jester said. The family met Joseph and his wife Saturday afternoon at Biggio’s at the Marriott.
“It’s bittersweet,” Jester explained. “But I feel like Harold is here with us, and he’s looking on from the best seat in the house.”
“This is the most talented team that we’ve had, but this team hasn’t won the World Series yet,” he said. “So we need to win this series on Monday, as quickly as possible, and get these guys some rest.”
They will need it against the Yankees, who would be wise to hurry up and beat the Twins, too.