New York Yankees (91-71) vs. Houston Astros (101-61)
This isn't exactly how the experts saw the American League Championship Series unfolding. But it comes down to the AL's most consistent team from start to finish, the Astros, versus an upstart Yankees team that is improving every day.
One thing is certain, after the Yankees' improbable comeback from being down two games to none to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series, the Astros won't scare the Yankees off the stage -- they'll have to beat them. During the regular season, the Astros won five of seven against the Yankees.
What's most alarming about those five losses for the Yankees is that two of them came with right-hander Luis Severino on the mound. Another loss saw Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka last just 1.2 innings and allow eight earned runs on Derek Jeter night May 14 before a national TV audience.
The good news for the Yankees is that the 2-5 record against the Astros was before their team was transformed by a significant trade with the Chicago White Sox that brought them third baseman Todd Frazier and two important additions to their now vaunted bullpen: right-handers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson.
Some important offensive stats: On the season, Houston batted .282 with a .346 OBP. They scored 896 runs, powered by 238 home runs. With second baseman Jose Altuve leading the way, the Astros stole 98 bases.
The Yankees batted .262 with a .339 OBP. They scored 858 runs and hit 241 homers. The Yankees stole 90 bases, but -- and this is a noteworthy advantage -- the Astros gave up 102 steals while the Yankees allowed just 65 stolen bases.
We only know for sure the Games 1 and 2 matchups: Tanaka will square off against Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, and Severino will match up with right-hander Justin Verlander in Game 2.
I'd expect the Astros to go with right-hander Brad Peacock and perhaps righty Carl Morton in Games 3 and 4, respectively, and based on how he pitched in Game 4 against Cleveland, I'd say the Yankees will slot CC Sabathia in before Sonny Gray goes in Game 4.
This is where it really gets interesting for the Yankees. If they find themselves in the thick of this series, which is exactly where I expect them to be, in the second turn around the rotation, I could actually see the Yankees plugging in lefty Jordan Montgomery, who won't have started a game since Oct. 1. In his past three starts, Montgomery recorded a 1.04 ERA and 0.88 WHIP while surrendering 12 hits and three walks over 17.1 innings.
That would allow the Yankees to have a well-rested Tanaka in Game 6 and Severino in Game 7. There's also a thought that if Yankees manager Joe Girardi is up in the series 3-2, he could gamble and have Tanaka -- with a full eight days' rest -- go in Game 7, instead. Tanaka is the more battle-tested pitcher.
The Yankees have a strong advantage in the bullpen -- even with how disappointing right-hander Dellin Betances has been of late. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman is back and better than ever, and with Girardi's adept hand, he won't panic and overuse him.
If it sounds as if I am selecting the Yankees, I am -- in six games. No matter how good a team general manager Jeff Luhnow has built in Houston -- including Verlander and a strong bullpen -- it simply might not be enough to get past the Yankees. However, there's one caveat: All bets are off if Keuchel looks remotely like the 2015 bearded wonder.