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Justin Verlander reminds Yankees that Houston is still the team to beat

The road to the World Series still goes through Houston. Justin Verlander & Co. has proven it. 

The Astros’ 35-year-old ace carved up the Yankees on Monday afternoon in the Bronx, tossing 6.2 innings of one-run ball in Houston’s 5-1 win. It was more than a dominant showing by Verlander — it was also a reminder that the Yankees are still trying to catch the defending champs in the American League, regardless of what the standings or scores indicate. 

In Verlander’s two starts against the Yankees this season, he’s been virtually unhittable. He’s posted a 0.61 ERA in 14.2 total innings, plus he’s struck out 19 and allowed just one run. Remember, it was Verlander who helped put an end to the Yankees’ magical postseason run last season, when he struck out 21 hitters in 16 innings (two starts, 0.56 ERA) during the ALCS.

“[Verlander’s] one of the best pitchers in the game, and you have to be ready for the fastball and adjust to everything else,” Didi Gregorius told the New York Daily News. “The way he was pitching us today with his curveball-slider was trying to get us to chase. He only threw one or two changeups in there if I’m not mistaken.”

Make no mistake, Verlander resembles a Cy Young-caliber pitcher once again. Even though he won both the Cy Young and American League MVP awards in 2011, one could argue Verlander’s in the midst of a career year. His baffling 1.11 ERA ranks best in the majors, and for a veteran who’s on the cusp of the Hall of Fame, this campaign could suppress any doubts about Verlander’s worthiness for a place in Cooperstown. 

And this should be a concern for the Yankees, since they can’t seem to crack Verlander, who’s shown no signs of regression. He’s still attacking and commanding the zone, and while doing so, there’s been no margin for error. 

“I’m processing information at a much higher level than I ever had in my career,” Verlander told the New York Post. “And not like analytical information, just processing information while I’m on the mound, just seeing the bigger picture, going with my gut. …. It’s not the best stuff I’ve ever had in my career, but it’s the best pitching for an extended period that I ever had in my career.

“To be able to steal outs against a lineup like this, especially with guys on base in big spots, those are game-changers, those are difference-makers throughout the course of the ballgame.”

Don’t be fooled by the Yankees’ three wins at Minute Maid Park in early May either. Houston’s pitching staff is performing at a historic rate. At the moment, the Astros have three pitchers with the three lowest ERA’s in the American League. Verlander’s ERA sits at 1.11, Charlie Morton’s sits at 2.04, and Gerrit Cole’s sits at 2.05. The last time one AL team owned the top-three ERA marks in a season was the 1927 Yankees. History says the rest. Oh, and the Astros also have Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers in the rotation. Can’t forget about them. 

Considering these numbers, Houston still has the edge over New York. Sure, both teams can match on offense — they have the sluggers and firepower to make any game enticing. But pitching makes all the difference in a playoff setting, and the Yankees found that out the hard way last October.

If New York learned its lesson, then general manager Brian Cashman is manning the phones right now, with the intent to acquire an additional starter in time for a pennant race.

The Astros’ rotation separates them from every other team in the league, and even though the Yankees are legitimate championship contenders, they also knew heading into this season that the starting staff was going to be their weakest link. Instead of pursuing a pitcher during the winter, the Yankees bulked up their offense with the trade for Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP. 

Did that bother Verlander? Nope. After Chris “Mad Dog” Russo said, “There’s no way you can’t think the Yankees are the team in beat in the American League” on his MLB Network show High Heat in February, Verlander replied on Twitter by saying, “I can think of a reason.”

The Astros are a confident bunch. And they’re backing up their words with wins. So, to make the point clear, the Yankees need to improve their rotation, sooner rather than later.

Of the names floating around in trade rumors (Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin, Rangers’ Cole Hamels, Tigers’ Michael Fulmer, Rays’ Chris Archer), the Yankees will likely need one of them to keep up with Houston. Because right now, they’re not in a position to out-pitch them. 

The Yankees have their own internal obstacles that they need to overcome to maintain success, but the pressure will be on for Cashman to add another starter by the trade deadline. The Astros are well equipped to defend their title, and if they keep the status quo, the Yankees will likely find Verlander and his supporting cast standing in the way again.

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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