HOUSTON — We were conditioned over the years to think of the Red Sox and Yankees as the only rivalry that mattered in the American League.
Every major move the Sox made was viewed through the prism of how it would affect their competition with the Yankees. It was the same perspective in the Bronx.
The 13 other teams in the league were schedule fillers, some more interesting than others depending on the season, but none who threatened to pull our attention away for very long.
But as the American League Championship Series gets started here Saturday night, the Houston Astros are the team the Red Sox and Yankees want to be.
This is the third consecutive ALCS for Houston and with the Dodgers out of the way they are heavy favorites to win a second World Series in three years.
“Very well run,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Friday. “Obviously they’ve done a great job with their farm system of developing kind of homegrown superstars as well as making a lot of smart decisions bringing in [players] whether via trade, via free agency.
“They’ve certainly kind of established themselves as the class of this league here the last few years. Hopefully we can ding it a little bit.”
The Astros beat the Yankees, 3-0, in the 2015 Wild-Card Game. It was Houston’s first playoff game under manager A.J. Hinch, who was hired that season to reap the benefits of a rebuilding program started in 2011 by general manager Jeff Luhnow.
The Astros won a seven-game ALCS against the Yankees in 2017, taking all four games at Minute Maid Park. They went on to win a thrilling seven-game World Series against the Dodgers.
The Red Sox, led by former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, flattened the Astros in five games in the ALCS last season.
Now the Yankees will try again after winning 103 games in the regular season and easily brushing away the Twins in the Division Series.
“I think this is a matchup that a lot of people around baseball expected,” Hinch said. “And now we’re here. Seven-game series, there’s going to be a lot of emotion. This is a rivalry that’s been created over the last few years, and everybody will think back to the 2017 epic seven-game series and expect this to top it.
“I hope it does. And I hope it’s the same result. I liked celebrating at the end of that one.”
Even after needing five games to dispatch the Rays in the Division Series, Houston has Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole lined up for the first three games against the Yankees.
“Pretty easy layout,” Hinch said Friday. “They’ll all be on regular rest. Three exceptional starting pitchers and happy to line them up that way.”
The Yankees will have Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton in Houston with Luis Severino for Game 3 in New York. Game 4 for the Yankees could be an opener.
Tanaka has made six career postseason starts, three against Houston. He allowed four earned runs in 18 innings in those games. Tanaka also faced the Astros twice this season and gave up three earned runs over 12 innings.
He won’t be easily rattled in what will be a frenzied atmosphere at Minute Maid Park. Counting the postseason, the Astros are 63-21 at their park this season.
“One thing I can say is that we’ve been here in 2017. We know what it’s like in here,” Tanaka said through a translator. “So I think that experience will definitely help going into the game.”
Greinke has pitched once in the last 16 days and in that game allowed six runs over 3⅔ innings against Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the Division Series.
His command was clearly off against the Rays after a long layoff.
“I imagine it affected him a little bit for the feel of his pitches, specifically his changeup,” Hinch said. “That’s what we got burned on against Tampa. And some of that was just they put good swings on some pitches and some of it was he threw it in some areas they controlled the strike zone a little bit.
“You put any pitcher — rested, not rested, extra rest, short rest — and if you don’t execute your pitches against these teams at this level, you’re going to get hurt.”
Greinke, one of the smartest pitchers in the game, did not care to say whether the long layoff was an issue.
“I don’t know,” he said during what was a brief interview session.
Both teams have powerful offenses. The Astros have a better rotation but the Yankees have an advantage in the bullpen.
Boone went to the bullpen 15 times in three games against the Twins. Yankees relievers pitched 13 innings and allowed three earned runs.
“There are so many guys they can go to in creative ways,” Hinch said.
“Is [Adam] Ottavino going to face lefties, where does [Zack] Britton fit in? How many innings can [Aroldis] Chapman throw? Those are high, elite arms. [Tommy] Kahnle throws the ball hard. They have velocity; they have weapons.”