The American League Championship Series begins tonight in Houston, as the top-seeded Astros host the AL East-winning New York Yankees with a trip to the World Series on the line.
Astros AL Cy Young contender Justin Verlander (18-4 in the regular season) will be making his 33rd career playoff start this evening (7:37 p.m., TBS), while the Yankees will counter with Jameson Taillon (14-5, 3.91 ERA).
After both teams received a first-round bye, Houston (106-56) wasted no time taking care of AL West-rival Seattle in the Divisional round, sweeping the Mariners, 3-0. The Astros are in the league championship series for the sixth-straight year (3-2 over the last five seasons).
The Yankees (99-63), on the other hand, were down 2-1 and facing elimination against Cleveland in Game 4, but ended up winning 4-2 on the road Sunday to force a Game 5 back in the Big Apple.
That deciding matchup had to wait until Tuesday (Monday’s scheduled contest was postponed due to rain), but the Yankees got early home runs from both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton en route to the series-clinching, 5-1 win.
Stanton got it started with a 3-run shot off of Cleveland starter Aaron Civale in the first inning Tuesday. Judge piggybacked on that with a solo tater in the second.
The superstar duo is hitting a combined 6-for-36 so far in the playoffs, but they seem to be getting hot at the right time.
Now, just hours after a goggle-wearing, champagne-spraying celebration, New York must turn around and head straight to Texas, with tonight’s first pitch at Minute Maid Park scheduled right around 24 hours after the Yankees officially got past the Guardians.
“As far as the quick turnaround, we’ll be fine,” said New York manager Aaron Boone. “That’s baseball — we do that all the time. We’ll walk in there with some confidence, we know [the Astros] are a great team and rested and ready. We look forward to the challenge.”
Judge, of course, set the American League record for homers with 62 during the regular season, but he also led the AL in RBI (131), was second in batting average (.311) and finished fifth in hits (177). He had a feeling he’d be seeing the Astros again.
“You’ve kind of got to go through Houston to get to a World Series…,” said Judge, whose season was ended by the Astros in both 2017 and 2019. “If you’re stuck in the past, you’re not going to go anywhere. Focus on what we can do today and keep moving forward.’’
Stanton, meanwhile, hit 31 homers after missing 52 games in 2022, but has gone deep in 10 of his last 15 playoff games, and now has 11 homers in just 23 career contests. Both are a constant threat to leave the yard.
Verlander, on the flip side, led the AL with 18 wins to go with his 1.75 ERA, and Judge is just 4-for-27 against him all-time (.148) with a walk, a pair of homers and 10 strikeouts.
The Goochland, Va., native Verlander — who sat out last season due to Tommy John surgery — didn’t fare so well his last time out, allowing 6 runs on 10 hits in Game 1 of the NLDS a week ago. He said he’s made a few minor, undisclosed tweaks that should help him avoid another ugly start Wednesday.
“I think hopefully after the last one, I really think I identified some stuff that was kind of the key component,” he said.
A win tonight would give Verlander 15 career postseason victories, which would tie him with John Smoltz for second on the all-time MLB list.
Houston third-year manager Dusty Baker has full confidence in his 39-year-old ace’s ability to bounce back after last week’s debacle on the mound.
“We’re not worried about Justin,” said Baker. “I mean, it can happen to anybody. I don’t care how great you are, or what your track record says, that’s why you play the game. So we anticipate Justin to come out and throw a great game.”
The Yankees will be gunning for their first trip to the World Series since 2009. Houston took 5 of the 7 regular-season meetings against New York this year, and has won 6 of the last 8 postseason battles with the Yankees.
Game 1 — Wednesday at Houston, 7:37 p.m. (TBS)
Game 2 — Thursday at Houston, 7:37 p.m. (TBS)
Game 3 — Saturday at New York, 5:07 p.m. (TBS)
Game 4 — Sunday at New York, 7:07 p.m. (TBS)
Game 5* — Monday at New York, 4:07 p.m. (TBS)
Game 6* — Tuesday at Houston, 6:07 p.m. (TBS)
Game 7* — Wednesday at Houston, 7:37 p.m. (TBS)
* — if necessary