HOUSTON — The heavyweight matchup of two of baseball’s most dominant teams begins Saturday night at rollicking Minute Maid Park, where the Yankees will take on the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
As far back as May, when it became clear that these were the two best teams in the American League, anything less than an epic encounter for a World Series berth would have been a disappointment. Adding to the enticing backstory is that it is also a rematch of the 2017 A.L.C.S., which the Astros won by taking Game 7 at home.
But these Yankees are improved and more experienced than the team from two years ago. They won 103 games in the regular season and came into this best-of-seven series riding a wave of momentum after easily eliminating the Minnesota Twins in a three-game sweep. The Astros, winners of 107 games — the most in baseball — had a harder time in the division series, needing five games to dispatch the Tampa Bay Rays.
Houston used Gerrit Cole, its best pitcher, in the clinching win against Tampa Bay, so he will not be available until Game 3 of the A.L.C.S. But Cole likely would be available to start if there is a decisive Game 7.
That is no small factor, considering that Cole has been unbeatable for more than four months during one of the most remarkable runs in baseball history. His last loss was on May 22, and he has gone 18-0 since then, setting a major league record by passing Roy Face (1959) and Carl Hubbell (1936). Over that stretch, his E.R.A. is 1.66 and the Astros are 22-2 during his starts, including his two wins in the postseason. Cole struck out 25 batters in those two games, setting a record for most strikeouts in a division series.
But over all, it is difficult to say where the advantage lies with two teams that are both so good.
The Yankees have a fearsome lineup stacked with what appear to be nothing but No. 3 and 4 hitters, and its bullpen is stocked with closers.
The Astros have two great starters — Cole and Justin Verlander — and a lineup of proven, clutch hitters. Their bullpen is not as strong, but they have arguably the best home-field advantage in baseball. Minute Maid Park is usually loud, but in the playoffs, the intensity multiplies, as the Rays found out.
“Did you hear the crowd today?” Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud said after Game 5. “It’s explosive. Even from announcing their lineups and when every one of their guys took the field, the crowd exploded every time. They won so many games here and they earned the right to home-field advantage and I’m sure the fans appreciate that, too, and will cheer even louder.”
The Astros are playing in their third-consecutive league championship series. The last team to do that was the Detroit Tigers, anchored by Verlander, from 2011 to 2013.
The first pitch is at 8:08 p.m. Eastern time as Zack Greinke starts for the Astros and Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound for the Yankees.
Here are a few things to look for during the game.
The Astros have a significant home-field advantage.
Houston won 60 games at home, the most in baseball and 14 more games than it won in its stadium last year during the regular season. Last year, the Astros lost all three home games to the Boston Red Sox in the A.L.C.S. All three of their playoff wins this year have come at home.
The Yankees have reordered their starters for this series.
Tanaka pitched Game 2 of the division series, but Yankees Manager Aaron Boone flipped him and James Paxton for the A.L.C.S. Tanaka made four starts at Minute Maid Park during the regular season, going 0-1 with a 5.73 E.R.A. But he has experience starting here during the playoffs. In 2017, he started Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. at Minute Maid Park and pitched well through six innings, allowing only four hits and two runs (although Houston won that game, 2-1). That same series, he was brilliant at Yankee Stadium in Game 5, throwing seven scoreless innings with only three hits in a 5-0 Yankees win.
Trading for Greinke has worked well for Houston.
Greinke has pitched well since he joined the Astros in July, going 8-1 with a 3.02 E.R.A. His lifetime record at Minute Maid Park is 8-3 with a 3.42 E.R.A.
In his last start, Greinke was rocked in Game 3 of the division series against the Rays, giving up six runs in less than four innings in Tampa. In 12 career starts, half of them with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke is 2-5 with a 4.58 E.R.A.
Carlos Beltran played for the Astros in 2017. Now he works for the Yankees.
Could Beltran, the former Astros player who now works for the Yankees as a special adviser, be an X-factor? He was a teammate of Astros Manager A.J. Hinch in Kansas City and Hinch knows that Beltran will give the Yankees as much information as he can recall from his time with Houston in 2017. Beltran is also an expert sign stealer — using crafty (while still legal) methods.