HOUSTON -- Now we get down to business. Now comes the matchup everybody began thirsting for when the summer was still warming up and October seemed miles away. The Astros and Yankees, a pair of American League titans with championship-or-bust hopes, are set to clash in what should be a scintillating AL Championship Series.
“It’s must-watch TV right there,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said.
The Astros’ path to the ALCS had more nail-biting moments than they could have imagined coming off a regular season in which they won a club-record and Major League-best 107 games, with the pesky Tampa Bay Rays pushing them to the brink with a winner-take-all Game 5 in the AL Division Series.
Any anxiety the Astros had after the Rays won Games 3 and 4 and tied the series had to be eased with starting pitcher Gerrit Cole -- unbeaten in his previous 23 starts -- taking the mound Thursday night. When Houston scored four times in the first inning against Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow, expectations soared. And when the Astros polished off the 6-1 win, it was time to party at Minute Maid Park.
“This was a grinder of a series, obviously, and we get to Game 5, and we get to have it at our home field, and we get to have Gerrit Cole,” manager AJ Hinch said. “A lot of that is lined up well for us, and we respond with a really good game. Big moments, big atmosphere today and big-time performances by big-time players.”
For the third year in a row, the Astros are headed to the ALCS, and they will meet the Yankees for the second time in three years. Games 1 and 2 will be played at Minute Maid Park on Saturday and Sunday, both at 7 p.m. CT, before the series shifts to the Bronx for Game 3 on Tuesday.
The Astros are the first team since the 2011-13 Tigers to advance to three consecutive League Championship Series.
“It’s going to be a battle,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “They've got a great team. They hit the ball out of the ballpark. They've got good pitching. It's very similar to our team. Both teams are a little banged up during the year and persevered until we got to the ALCS, and we get to match up with them again. It was an unbelievable series we had with them during the regular season. It's going to be fun, man. It's going to be a blast.”
Cole put the Astros on his back and refused to let them go home. He improved to 18-0 in his last 24 starts by striking out 10 batters and allowing two hits, including one homer -- a leadoff shot by Eric Sogard in the second inning -- over eight innings. Cole set a Division Series record with 25 strikeouts, which is the most by a Houston pitcher in a single postseason series.
“I feel good going out with the lineup and the defense and the bullpen that we have,” Cole said. “So that's what gives me confidence to put me in the zone, and that's what gives me confidence to prepare like I do.”
The Astros came out aggressive against Glasnow, with the first four batters reaching on hits and all scoring. José Altuve had an RBI single, Bregman a two-run double and Yuli Gurriel an RBI single to make it 4-0. The five hits in the inning were the most in the opening frame of any postseason game in club history.
“It was just a team approach today,” Bregman said. “It was just one at-bat after another. I think [George Springer's] at-bat to lead off the game to give us that first guy on was one of the biggest hits of our season. Then you see [Michael Brantley] do it, and Springer go first to third, and use our athleticism we have. And then Altuve gets a big hit to drive in the first run, break the ice. And then Brantley went first to third, and that made my job easy hitting a fly ball, and was fortunate it stayed on the line, actually, and found some grass.”
Houston didn’t manage much else against Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s steady stream of relievers until Brantley and Altuve cranked back-to-back homers to start the eighth inning and send Minute Maid Park into a frenzy. The homer by Altuve was the 11th of his playoff career, setting a Major League record for the most by a second baseman (passing Chase Utley) and tying teammate Springer’s club record.
“We really came out pretty determined to just pass the baton to the next guy, and you saw that happen,” Hinch said. “For as potent an offense that we have with the home run -- and Mike's home run at the end of the game was huge just to continue to tack on runs and give us a more comfortable lead. … There was just so many good at-bats, that we put them on their heels from the very beginning.”
This will be the third time in the last five years the Astros and Yankees have met in the postseason. Houston won the 2015 AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium and then outlasted the Yanks in the 2017 ALCS, during which the home team won every game. The Astros wound up winning their first World Series, beating the Dodgers in seven games.
“We’re ready for them,” outfielder Josh Reddick said. “We know it’s going to be a good series. We know they’re a great ballclub, but we’re a better ballclub.”
The Astros won the regular-season series from the Yankees, 4-3, but those meetings mean little now. They swept the Yanks in April before losing three of four in the Bronx in June, but both teams were missing several key players with injuries along the way.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” Brantley said. “It’s going to be a hard-fought series, and we have to play as a team and keep doing it.”