It's a rematch of the 2017 American League Championship Series as the New York Yankees return to Houston for the first time since their Game 7 defeat. Both teams have built off their success from the season prior; the Astros, at 19-10, have won seven of their last ten games on the back of what is considered the best starting rotation in all of baseball. The Yankees have overcome early injuries and mediocre play to rocket themselves to an 18-9 record while riding a nine-game win streak.
The storyline of this series? Power, in every sense of the word. Can the likes of Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., and Dallas Keuchel counteract Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, and Gary Sanchez? Likewise, can Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, and Masahiro Tanaka keep the bats of George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa quiet?
The Yankees will seek vengeance for their elimination at the hands of the Astros in 2017. For the Astros, they'll look to prove that they're the crème de la crème of the American League.
Both teams maintained the core of their roster following the conclusion of the World Series. Both teams also improved the talent that provided deep playoff runs.
What's interesting is both teams are benefitting from a trade that never happened. During the offseason, the Astros solidified their rotation by acquiring Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates, a move that caught many by surprise as it was long rumored Cole would land in the Bronx as both the Pirates and Yankees engaged in extensive talks that never materialized. While Yankees' fans may wonder what life would be like if Cole and his 1.73 ERA in 2018 were in New York, they can't be too displeased with the situation.
After all, the Pirates' asking price included a deal centered on third base prospect Miguel Andujar. Now, Andujar has been a spark plug in an already deep lineup. His 12 doubles pace the league while his .300 batting average is highest amongst AL rookies. His 12 RBI are second behind fellow rookie teammate Tyler Austin (yes, he's still a rookie).
Oh, and there's also Giancarlo Stanton. He'll have the opportunity to show, early on, that he was the missing link that prevented the Yankees from reaching the World Series for the first time in eight years.
Advantage Houston, because their rotation is too good to ignore.
Their 2.59 team ERA is the best in MLB. As impressive as Cole's 1.73 ERA is, Justin Verlander's 1.39 is best on the team. Charlie Morton has the third best at 1.86. Dallas Keuchel, who seems to thrive as a Yankee killer, has an inflated ERA at an even 4.00.
The name of the game is strikeouts. Cole's 61 strikeouts place him at the top of the table, with Verlander not far behind at fifth with 58. McCullers Jr. sits at a measly 11th place with 44 strikeouts in 34 innings.
So it should be a concern for the Yankees as they face such hard-throwing right-handers. In today's game, strikeouts reign supreme, and often a strikeout pitcher prevails over a strikeout-prone hitter. This does not bode well for the likes of Stanton, whose 40 strikeouts on the year are third in all of baseball, and Judge, who struck out over 200 times last year.
The hope for the Yankees is stringing together tough at-bats and forcing the Astros' rotation into deep counts. For the Astros, they hope their right-handed starting staff can overpower a right-handed hitting dominant lineup.
The Yankees are one of the hottest teams in baseball, and the Houston Astros are one of the most consistent. The 2017 ALCS was an epic seven-game series with two talented ball clubs pitted against one another. Both teams have proven last year was no fluke, and this first series matchup will prove to be an important measuring stick to see where each team is at this early in the season.
Prediction: A split series