SportsPulse: And then there were four. The Houston Astros clinched their ticket to the ALCS. Here’s everything you need to know heading into the league championship series.
HOUSTON — The Houston Astros got a little scare, even a little rattled, but Thursday night, normalcy returned to Minute Maid Park in front of a frenzied orange towel-waving sellout crowd.
The Astros finally shook off the Tampa Bay Rays to win the American League Division Series, winning the fifth and deciding game 6-1, with co-ace Gerrit Cole proving why he will soon be the richest pitcher in baseball history.
The Astros gave Cole a 4-run lead in the first inning, and it was over. Cole never let the Rays up for air, giving up just two hits and striking out 10 in eight innings, throwing 99-mph in his final pitch.
Now, America gets what they wanted all along.
The New York Yankees and Astros in the ALCS.
A heavyweight fight between two powerhouses that combined for 210 victories during the regular season, and six more in the postseason.
Round 1 will be Saturday night in Houston, and the winner of this best-of-seven series will be the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series.
It’s a rematch of the 2017 ALCS where he Yankees a 3-2 lead, only for the Astros to win the next two games in Houston.
The Astros went on to win the World Series in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Yankees went onto fire their manager, Joe Girardi, who was in broadcast booth Thursday night.
Now, with a new manager, Aaron Boone, and a team that hit 306 home runs, the Yankees are back again.
The Astros, if nothing else, showed their vulnerability.
Come on, if the Rays can take the Astros to five games, and beat likely Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, what in the world can the powerful Yankees do to them?
Well, we’re about to find out.
The Yankees, if nothing else, now don’t have to face Cole until Game 3. Verlander is scheduled to go Game 2 and Game 6. Greinke will go Game 1 and likely Game 5.
The Yankees will have a fully rested bullpen with starters Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino ready to go Games 1-2, and could activate injured lefty CC Sabathia and center fielder Aaron Hicks for the series.
The Astros aren’t scared.
They are oozing with confidence, and plan to use the Yankees simply as a reference on their resume to the title of one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
“I think this is the best team we’ve had here,’’ MVP finalist Alex Bregman told USA TODAY Sports, “by far. If win the World Series this year, I think we have a chance to be one of the best teams of all time.’’
Yet, to be considered among the greatest teams of all time, the Astros need another World Series championship — their second in three years — to go along with their three consecutive 100-victory seasons.
That will be the only way they’ll be forever remembered.
Cole, after producing one of the greatest postseason performances in history in his last start – striking out 15 batters, two shy of the major-league record in 7 ⅔ innings – this time settled simply for a stellar outing.
Cole gave up two hits through eight innings, struck out 10, establishing a Division Series record with 25 strikeouts overall, before turning the ball over to the bullpen in the ninth.
Greatness meet Cole.
Cole is an insane 18-0 in his last 24 starts, the longest winning streak in a single season in major-league history. In those 24 starts, Cole is yielding a 1.66 ERA, with 251 strikeouts and 34 walks in 162 ⅓ innings, an opposing .170 batting average and an 0.80 WHIP.
And yet, the Astros are so supremely talented that he likely will finish second in the Cy Young voting to Verlander.
Still, no one has dominated like Cole this postseason, giving up just six hits and two runs in 15 ⅔ innings, striking out 23.
The Rays couldn’t put together another rally. Not tonight.
Not with Cole on the mound.
The Yankees vs. the Astros.
It’s finally here.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale