What to watch for in the ALCS

Astros host Yan­kees in open­ing game Fri­day

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Jorge L. Or­tiz @jorgelor­tiz USA TO­DAY Sports

AMER­I­CAN LEAGUE CHAM­PI­ONSHIP SE­RIES

New York Yan­kees at Hous­ton Astros, 8 p.m. ET Fri­day, Fox Sports 1

Key matchups in se­ries and what to watch for

Break­ing down the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries between the New York Yan­kees and Hous­ton Astros

For starters: Game 1, Fri­day: Masahiro Tanaka (13-12, 4.74 ERA dur­ing the sea­son) vs. Dal­las Keuchel (14-5, 2.90), 8 p.m. ET. Game 2, Satur­day: Luis Sev­erino (14-6, 2.98) vs. Justin Ver­lan­der (15-8, 3.36 ERA), 4 p.m. ET. Game 3, Mon­day: CC Sa­bathia (14-5, 3.69) vs. TBA, 8 p.m. ET. Game 4, Tues­day: Sonny Gray (10-12, 3.55) vs. TBA. Game 5 (if nec­es­sary), Wed­nes­day: TBA vs. TBA. Game 6 (if nec­es­sary), Oct. 20: TBA vs. TBA. Game 7 (if nec­es­sary), Oct. 21: TBA vs. TBA.

27 outs: The Yan­kees are rid­ing an emo­tional high from their three con­sec­u­tive wins in the AL Di­vi­sion Se­ries over the Cleve­land In­di­ans, who had lost just four of their last 37 games in the reg­u­lar sea­son. And it wasn’t just New York’s out­stand­ing bullpen car­ry­ing the load.

Af­ter Sonny Gray’s ab­bre­vi­ated out­ing in Game 1 — 31⁄ in­nings, 3 three runs — Yan­kees starters ex­celled and were down­right im­pos­ing in some stretches, av­er­ag­ing nearly six in­nings with a 2.66 ERA in the fi­nal four games. That was sup­posed to be the club’s big­gest weak­ness, but even 37-year-old CC Sa­bathia looked re­ju­ve­nated.

The ques­tion is whether New York’s starters can come close to repli­cat­ing that per­for­mance against the ma­jors’ most po­tent of­fense. The Astros come at you from all an­gles. They fin­ished sec­ond in the ma­jors in home runs — three be­hind the Yan­kees’ 241 — but struck out the fewest times. They were the only team with an on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age above .800 (.823) and fin­ished fourth in the AL in stolen bases.

Led by MVP fa­vorite Jose Al­tuve, Hous­ton bat­tered the Bos­ton Red Sox pitch­ing staff in their di­vi­sion se­ries, hit­ting .333 with a .974 OPS and eight homers. There are no weak spots in the Astros lineup, which also fea­tures the likes of Car­los Cor­rea, Ge­orge Springer, Mar­win Gon­za­lez and Josh Red­dick.

“We won a lot of games late dur­ing the sea­son. I think that helps boost some con­fi­dence,” Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch said of his club’s up­beat state of mind. “The fact we can score from any po­si­tion in the bat­ting or­der, that helps. We are a quick-strike of­fense that can hurt you in any in­ning.”

The Astros also feel good about their 1-2 punch of starters Keuchel and Ver­lan­der. It was only two years ago that Keuchel shut down the Yan­kees in the wild­card game, pitch­ing six sparkling in­nings as Hous­ton pre­vailed 3-0. For his ca­reer, in­clud­ing the play­offs, he’s 5-2 with a 1.24 ERA in seven starts against New York.

Ver­lan­der won all five of his starts af­ter join­ing Hous­ton on Aug. 31, with a 1.06 ERA. He also col­lected vic­to­ries in his two di­vi­sion se­ries out­ings, the sec­ond one a 2 2⁄3- in­nings stint as a re­liever.

Keep an eye on: Aaron Judge. The record-set­ting rookie has fallen into an­other one of the deep slumps in which he can’t hit a grape­fruit. Judge had one hit in 20 at-bats against the In­di­ans, strik­ing out a stun­ning 16 times. His strug­gles were a ma­jor rea­son New York av­er­aged just 4.2 runs in that se­ries, more than a run be­low its reg­u­lar-sea­son stan­dard, while hit­ting .201.

The Astros held Judge to a .235 bat­ting av­er­age and one home run in 23 plate ap­pear­ances, and they’re sure to fol­low Cleve­land’s for­mula of bust­ing him with in- side fast­balls just off the plate, then tempt­ing him to chase low and out­side.

How­ever, Judge has the bat speed to turn on those in­side pitches that catch too much of the plate, and he can get hot for long spells, as his 15 Septem­ber home runs at­test.

On the Astros’ side, Al­tuve and Springer are ac­com­plished al­laround play­ers who can im­pact a game with their bat, glove or legs. And don’t lose sight of Cor­rea, the emerg­ing su­per­star who went 14-for-28 with 10 RBI against the Yan­kees this sea­son.

Close and late: This is New York’s strength, of­ten dis­played against the In­di­ans and most no­tably in their Game 5 vic­tory. Even with a deep, rested bullpen, the Yan­kees re­lied on just two re­liev­ers — David Robert­son and Aroldis Chap­man — to cover the fi­nal 42⁄ in­nings of a 5-2 vic­tory. 3 They yielded nary a hit nor a run.

Chap­man, who en­dured a mys­ti­fy­ing Au­gust slump, is back to his old over­pow­er­ing ways. He hasn’t al­lowed a run in his last

172⁄ in­nings, with 28 strike­outs. 3 If he or Robert­son fal­tered, man­ager Joe Gi­rardi had lots of other op­tions with swing-and-miss stuff, in­clud­ing Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and Dellin Be­tances.

Astros closer Ken Giles saved

34 games in 38 chances, but he’s not quite at the same level as Chap­man. Hous­ton’s bullpen ERA of 4.27 dur­ing the sea­son was nearly a run higher than the Yan­kees’ 3.34, and nei­ther Giles nor top setup man Chris Deven­ski pitched well in the first round against Bos­ton.

In the end: With such of­fen­sive fire­power on both sides, the ex­pec­ta­tion is for a high-scor­ing se­ries with lots of ac­tion. That rarely hap­pens in the post­sea­son, where power arms tend to pre­vail. The Yan­kees bullpen is loaded with them, but the Astros hap­pen to be par­tic­u­larly adept at hit­ting the hard stuff, putting up a .898 OPS against fast­balls. For the Yan­kees to reach their first World Se­ries since 2009, they’ll need to ex­ploit the soft part of Hous­ton’s ro­ta­tion and its bullpen while their own starters con­tinue their strong work. That might be too much to ask. Astros in six.

JOSE AL­TUVE BY USA TO­DAY SPORTS

BRAD MILLS, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

NLDS Game 5 was tense Thurs­day, as the Cubs scored first, the Na­tion­als ral­lied and Chicago went back ahead in the fifth in­ning, when Ad­di­son Russell, above, dou­bled in two runs and later scored on a passed ball.

TROY TAORMINA, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Astros sec­ond base­man Jose Al­tuve is com­ing off a big se­ries against the Red Sox.

ADAM HUNGER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Yan­kees short­stop Didi Gre­go­rius hit two home runs in Game 5 vs. the In­di­ans.

TROY TAORMINA, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pitcher Justin Ver­lan­der hasn’t lost since the Astros ac­quired him.

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