Astros in good spot awaiting Yankees' arrival

McCullers Jr. fans 8 in finale loss to A's; division lead at 4 1/2 games

July 8th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The last time we saw the Yankees at Minute Maid Park, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve was sending them home for the winter with a dramatic walk-off homer off Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the 2019 American League Championship Series.

Much has happened to the Astros in the 20 months since, including the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal that cost manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs and the pandemic that shut down the sport last year. Through it all, the Astros have persevered on the field.

After taking two of three games from the A’s, who snapped Houston’s six-game winning streak with a 2-1 win in Thursday’s series finale at Minute Maid Park, the Astros (54-34) remain one of the elite teams in the AL and have a 4 1/2-game lead in the West. The Yankees (44-42) are fighting to remain in the playoff chase as the All-Star break approaches.

“It’s always big when the Yankees come to town,” manager Dusty Baker said. “There will probably be a number of Yankee fans, there’ll probably be a sellout crowd. There will probably be heightened security like there always is. It’s going to be exciting. They’re fighting for their lives. I read some things before I got here that they didn't like us too well. They didn’t receive us too well [in New York in May], so it should be a heck of a series.”

A’s starter Frankie Montas shut down baseball’s highest-scoring offense on Thursday by holding the Astros to one run and five hits while striking out 10 in 6 2/3 innings. Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. allowed a pair of runs in the first and silenced Oakland from there, giving up two runs and seven hits with eight strikeouts in seven innings.

The Astros fell to 9-4 against the A’s in 2021, but Houston’s solid play this season against Oakland is the reason it leads the division. The Astros are 45-30 against teams other than the A’s; Oakland is 46-30 against teams other than Houston. The two teams won’t meet again until Sept. 24.

“It’s rewarding, certainly,” Baker said. “They’re in our division. They’re trying to overtake us. There was a time we were trying to overtake them. This could come down to whoever has the best record against each other. You’re always conscious of the tiebreaker. It’s in our best interest to try to win as many games against them as we can.”

Last year the A’s snapped the Astros’ streak of consecutive division titles at three by finishing seven games ahead of their rival. Oakland was 7-3 against Houston last year in the regular season (with seven of those games played in Oakland) before the Astros eliminated the A’s in the Division Series en route to their fourth consecutive AL Championship Series.

“We know that they’re our toughest competition as far as winning the division,” McCullers said. “We have a lot of teams in our division that are playing well, but we know the A’s are definitely one we have to bring it against. They’re the AL West champs of last year. Even those runs we had -- when we won the AL West in ‘17, ‘18 and ‘19 -- they were right on our heels the whole way. You just have to make sure you’re playing good baseball.”

The Yankees took two of three games from the Astros in early May at Yankee Stadium; Altuve's go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning of the finale kept Houston from being swept and probably turned its season around. The Astros were 15-15 going into that game, and are 39-19 since.

“These games before the break, before the first half is over, it’s important for us to play through the break and not to the break and not to think about taking those days off,” Baker said. “We’ve got to play all the way through, and we know we’ve got to play them tough.”