Astros head to the Bronx for a battle of two of the AL’s best

After a short two-game homestand against the Braves, which they swept, the Astros head back on the road Thursday to begin a four-game series with the Yankees. The teams are two of the best in the American League, each having surpassed the 20-win mark so far this season — the Astros got their 23rd win on Wednesday, becoming the first team in the majors to reach that mark. Sunday will be a memorable one, with a pregame ceremony to retire former Yankee SS Derek Jeter’s No. 2 jersey leading into the final game of the series.

Both teams find themselves in the top five of the majors in batting average and OPS while the Yankees lead the American League in home runs and RBI. Both squads are finding success on the mound, as well, as they rank in the top five in ERA. Astros pitchers have racked up the second-most strikeouts in the majors (and most in the AL). With both teams doing well with pitching and offense, the individual pitching matchups could be a key to figuring out which side has the advantage in the series.

Thursday looks like the game that is most likely to be a pitcher’s duel. SP Dallas Keuchel, who took home AL Pitcher of the Month honors for April, is slated to take the hill against SP Michael Pineda, who has been the ace of the Yankees’ rotation for the first few weeks of 2017. After a disappointing 2016 following his Cy Young-winning season of 2015, Keuchel looks like he has returned to his 2015 performance. In his first seven starts of the season, Keuchel is 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 52.2 innings. He has walked 13 batters and has a complete game on his stat line. Opponents are hitting a scant .179 against the 29-year-old. While Pineda is having one of the best seasons of his career, his numbers don’t look as good when comparing them to Keuchel’s. Pineda is 3-1 in 6 starts with a 3.12 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. He’s allowed fewer free passes, with 5 walks issued, and has a .221 opponents’  average. Again, if you’re looking for a pitcher’s duel, this is probably the game for you. But I have to give the edge to Keuchel here. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the majors in 2017, and if his performance continues like that on Thursday, the Yankees will likely have a hard time scoring runs.

A couple of young pitchers are scheduled to get the start on Friday, with SP Lance McCullers Jr. going for the Astros and SP Jordan Montgomery opposing him. McCullers is performing well coming off of an injury-shortened 2016. He’s gone 42.1 innings in his seven starts, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.40 ERA, 50 strikeouts and 13 walks. Opponents are hitting at a .239 clip against him. The rookie Montgomery has made five starts, going 2-1 with a 3.81 ERA. He’s struck out 26 batters in 28.1 innings with 14 walks and a .240 opponents’ average. That’s a higher walk rate than you’d like to see, but overall his numbers aren’t too much worse than McCullers’. While McCullers is younger than Montgomery, he has more major-league experience than the Yankee pitcher, with 43 career starts compared to just the five for Montgomery. The Yankees hitters may be able to get to McCullers, but given his relative experience compared to Montgomery, I think McCullers has a better chance of getting the win in this game.

https://giphy.com/embed/3oKIPwiVvWyDHIMDEk

via GIPHY

The third game of the series is where the Yankees appear to have a clear advantage in the pitching matchup, with SP Luis Severino going for the Yankees against SP Mike Fiers, the Astros’ expected starter. He has struggled through his first six starts, going 1-1 with a 5.64 ERA in 30.1 innings. He has 26 strikeouts and 13 walks, and a .288 BAA. Severino, on the other hand, is 2-2 with a 3.40 ERA in six starts. He’s thrown 39.2 innings, striking out 45 batters with just 7 walks, and opponents are hitting .200 against him. Even if both players have their best stuff on Saturday, Severino has the edge over Fiers. Give the Yankees the advantage here — if the game is played. With rain in the forecast all day Saturday, don’t be surprised to see this game get postponed, possibly with a doubleheader on Sunday

The finale on Sunday will have Astros SP Charlie Morton opposing Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka, both of whom have been serviceable this season. Morton is 4-2 with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts. He’s gone 39.2 innings, striking out 44 and walking 14. Opponents are hitting .258 against him. Tanaka’s ERA is a little high at 4.36, but that is partially because he gave up 7 earned runs in his season opener. He’s 5-1 overall in seven starts, with a complete game shutout on his ledger. He has 32 strikeouts and 11 walks in 43.1 innings, and his BAA is .271. Tanaka has pitched well since that poor performance in his first start of 2017 and I give him the edge in this matchup.

Taking a look at some other players to watch in this series, Astros RP Chris Devenski could be an X-factor coming out of the bullpen. He can give the team multiple innings if needed in a long-relief role, or he can come into the game in a high-leverage situation to get key outs. He has struck out 35 batters in 19.2 innings, and he has just 3 walks on the year. For the Yankees, it’s rookie OF Aaron Judge. He is among the MLB leaders with 13 home runs and is hitting .317 on the season, providing a combination of hitting for contact and power. If the Astros pitchers can keep him in the park this weekend, that could be a key to victory for the visitors.

These two teams are pretty evenly matched so don’t be surprised to see this four-game series get split, with each team winning two games. If I had to give one team the edge, it would be the Astros. I feel their starting pitching is more reliable and the Yankees’ pitchers are pitching above what you would expect from them, which won’t happen every game. The Astros also have a deeper lineup — utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who is largely a bench player who doesn’t always start already has 9 home runs on the season.

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