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Astros' aces carving up Tribe's approach

Verlander, Cole combine for 19 K's over 2 starts in ALDS
MLB.com @castrovince

HOUSTON -- An unstoppable force cannot meet an immovable object. Were there such a thing as an unstoppable force, there could not logically be such a thing as an immovable object. And were there such a thing as an immovable object, there could not logically be such a thing as an unstoppable force.

Which brings us to the Astros' pitching staff and the Indians' offense.

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HOUSTON -- An unstoppable force cannot meet an immovable object. Were there such a thing as an unstoppable force, there could not logically be such a thing as an immovable object. And were there such a thing as an immovable object, there could not logically be such a thing as an unstoppable force.

Which brings us to the Astros' pitching staff and the Indians' offense.

View Full Game Coverage

:: ALDS schedule and results ::

Houston's pitching staff entered this American League Division Series with the "unstoppable force" that is the highest strikeout rate in all of baseball, while Cleveland's lineup entered with the "immovable object" that is the highest contact rate/lowest strikeout rate in all of baseball. And the fallacy of this oft-proposed paradox has played out right before our eyes, because the high-spin, high-velocity Astros staff, led by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, has made mincemeat of the Tribe's nine with a cavalcade of K's that has resulted in a 2-0 edge in the best-of-five set.

"They're pitching their tails off, man," said Indians catcher Yan Gomes, best articulating the cap-tipping Cleveland has been reduced to at the hands of this Houston staff.

As good as Verlander was in the opener, Cole was actually a bit better in a 3-1 victory in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, logging seven dominant innings and becoming just the second postseason pitcher (and first since Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in Game 1 of the 1973 National League Championship Series) to strike out at least a dozen batters with zero walks.

"Tom Seaver, high heat, nasty breaking ball, workhorse," Cole said. "Seaver and [Don] Sutton, both guys seem the same."

Video: NLCS Gm1: Seaver fans 13 with no walks vs. Reds

You could say that of Cole and Verlander right now.

Cole's offseason arrival was the first hint that the 2018 Astros might actually be a more potent postseason force than last year's World Series champs, but the depth that has been added to a bullpen (albeit with some attached controversy) that required quite a bit of creativity to advance last October make this a more realistic back-to-back bid than we typically see this time of year.

First, of course, the Astros have to get past the AL Central champs, and nothing we've seen this weekend indicates they won't. That the Indians' bullpen is compromised by the obvious absences of the 2016 versions of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen is potentially enough of a DS difference-maker on its own. But a 6-for-60 showing with 24 strikeouts in 64 plate appearances is the real killer for a club trying to end baseball's longest championship drought.

Video: CLE@HOU Gm2: Cole discusses comparisons to Seaver

So the Indians are, essentially, striking out twice as frequently against the Astros (37.5 percent of the time) as they did in the regular season (18.9).

It either screams of a need for an adjustment in approach or, perhaps, an adjustment of opponent, because Houston's pitchers are an impossible matchup at the moment.

"They want a shutout every day," Hinch said of his staff, "and they don't care who you match up against, teams that can dominate, teams that can't. They prepare as good as you would expect. They execute at an elite level. They get outs quickly if they need it. They punch out guys when they need it. Very few walks, excellent stuff across the board. How many compliments can I give our pitching staff?"

Video: CLE@HOU Gm1: Verlander K's 7, holds Indians to 2 hits

That Verlander and Cole, specifically, are good is understood. But the Indians got their absolute best on the biggest stage of the season.

Cleveland had a .522 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs this season -- the highest such mark in all of baseball, per Statcast™. But that doesn't mean its offense is invincible (or immovable or unstoppable, as it were). Verlander and Cole sure proved that. An Indians team that saw, on average, 33 percent four-seamers over the course of the regular season saw 60.5 percent heaters (121 out of 200) from the Astros' dual aces.

Video: CLE@HOU Gm2: Statcast™ analyzes Cole's strikeouts

"It seems like they can throw the ball wherever they want," Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said.

Verlander's 5 1/3 innings of mastery (two runs on two hits with two walks and seven strikeouts) against a Tribe team that gave him fits in his Detroit days was a testament to how his increased use of the four-seamer at the expense of the sinking two-seamer has made him, in some respects, a different pitcher. Verlander can challenge hitters in the zone because he has the highest average spin rate of any starting pitcher in baseball, giving the illusion of a "rising" effect on the pitch.

But the Indians were struck by how frequently Verlander worked left-handed hitters away in Game 1:

"Verlander pitched away more than you'd typically see," Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said. "He's more glove-side comfort, typically."

Cole doesn't generate as much spin (and, ergo, "upward" movement) on his fastball as Verlander does, but he's got more velocity -- a 96.5 mph average to Verlander's 95. On Saturday, with the pulse of the postseason evident, he was even nastier -- a 97.5 mph average, with a 99.2-mph max.

And Cole wasn't afraid to challenge Tribe hitters in the upper-third of the zone and above:

This approach only made the sweeping and biting movements of Cole's breaking pitches all the more effective.

"The only thing that surprised me was his velocity," Gomes said. "He was up there, 98-100. I'm not very familiar with him other than seeing videos, but that's the kind of baseball you're going to get right now."

Between the starters and what has been a bullish bullpen (zero runs, one hit, two walks and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings), the Astros have given the Indians their best. Game 2 marked just the fifth time in postseason history that a team allowed no more than five baserunners with 14 or more strikeouts. Francisco Lindor's solo shot off Cole marked the only time all day Cleveland got a runner past first base.

Video: CLE@HOU Gm2: Lindor hits a solo homer to right

"We knew coming in that we had our hands full with their pitching staff," Van Burkleo said.

You could call it an unstoppable force. Or an immovable object.

Or, simply, the backbone of a 2-0 series edge.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander