HOUSTON — And then there were four.
The division series are over, and with them, the postseason field has been whittled down from 10 teams. The next round begins Friday night, with the Houston Astros hosting the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Don’t be misled by the teams’ regular-season win totals — 101 for the Stros, 91 for the Yanks. The clubs are far more evenly matched than it appears on the surface, with Houston having scored 38 more runs but New York having allowed 40 fewer.
And assuming Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge are the top two finishers in the AL MVP race, it will mark the fourth ALCS in the past 25 years to feature both the MVP and runner-up.
The most important thing of the night: Will Judge return to form? After recording two hits, including a two-run homer, in the wild-card victory over the Minnesota Twins, the rookie slugger went 1-for-20 with a playoff series-record 16 strikeouts in the division series against the Cleveland Indians. To hear Yankees manager Joe Girardi tell it, it was simply a matter of the Indians getting ahead in the count and putting Judge away with pitches that dotted the edges of the plate. Surely, the Astros were taking notes. The Yankees are hardly a one-man band, but they will have a difficult time advancing if Houston is able to keep Judge from leaving the yard.
ALCS Game 1: Yankees at Astros
The stakes: The Yankees haven’t played in the ALCS since 2012, an eternity when measured in Steinbrenner Years. The last time the Astros got this far, it was 2005 — and they were in the National League. But the arrow is pointing upward for both franchises, which are here in large part because of a core of young players that is controllable for the next few seasons.
Chatter about Girardi’s future in the Bronx has been muffled since the Yankees became only the 10th team to win a best-of-five series after dropping the first two games. While the Yanks were embarking on their improbable comeback against the Indians, the Astros were at home eating popcorn. But if neither Chris Sale nor Craig Kimbrel could subdue Houston’s high-powered offense, it’s doubtful a three-day layoff will have much effect.
If the Yankees win: They will steal away home-field advantage and make life much easier than it was in the division series. Also, they will exact some revenge on Keuchel, who shut them out for six innings and outdueled Tanaka in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.
If the Astros win: They will keep rolling, especially at home, where they outscored the Boston Red Sox by a 16-4 margin in the first two games of their division series. They also will hand a series lead to ace Justin Verlander in Game 2.
One key stat to know: There’s no effective way to pitch Altuve, which is why he rates as the AL MVP frontrunner. But short of intentionally walking him, as the Red Sox did twice in Game 2 of the division series, taking care to not give him anything to hit early in the count would seem to be the way to go.
In 341 regular-season at-bats that ended before the pitcher got to two strikes against him, Altuve batted .446 with a .739 slugging percentage. He went 8-for-15 in the division series and homered three times in Game 1, prompting Red Sox star Mookie Betts to best sum up the challenge of figuring out how to beat Altuve: “I’m not exactly sure what a game plan for him is. Good luck, I guess.”
The matchup that matters most: It’s the postseason, so the bullpens will be a series-long storyline. In particular, it will bear watching how a Yankees bullpen loaded with hard-throwing relievers fares against an Astros offense that mashed heaters to the tune of .301/.373/.525 during the regular season.
Game 1, though, will hinge on whether the Yankees are finally able to hit Keuchel, who has been harder for them to figure out than a Rubik’s Cube. Keuchel is 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA in six career starts against the Bombers — and that doesn’t include the lefty’s six scoreless innings in the 2015 wild-card playoff game at Yankee Stadium, a start that he calls “one of the most magical times that I’ll have in my career.” Yankees hitters are 19-for-103 (.184) with four walks and 35 strikeouts against him.
“Just because it’s the Yankees you kind of get a little more amped and a little more jittery because it is the pinstripes and such a storied organization,” Keuchel said. “But I think it’s just a coincidence that my command and location have been better than what it usually is against them.”
The prediction: After coming all the way back to vanquish the 102-win Indians on Wednesday night, the Yankees were flying so high that they barely needed a jet to get to Houston. But that could also mean that they’re ripe for a Game 1 letdown. Tanaka could help prevent that, and he has quietly pitched well since the All-Star break, posting a 3.77 ERA and three-hitting the Indians over seven scoreless innings to save the Yankees’ season in Game 3.
But Tanaka didn’t survive the second inning May 14 against the Astros, who just got through knocking around Red Sox starting pitching for 16 runs in 11⅔ innings over four games. This isn’t the time to start betting against them. The Astros will score early and ride Keuchel to a 5-2 victory.