The Astros' Alex Bregman is called safe against a tag...

The Astros' Alex Bregman is called safe against a tag by Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo on a pick-off attempt during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

HOUSTON – Regardless of what happens Thursday night between these clubs – and regardless of what happens in the doubleheader scheduled here for July 21 – the recently-completed four-game series between the Yankees and Astros at the Stadium told most what they needed to know when it comes to supremacy in the American League.

Until further notice, these are the two best teams in the AL, seemingly headed on a collision course in October, something that has occurred three times in the past seven years, with the Astros winning all three meetings (the 2015 AL wild-card game and then ALCS matchups in 2017 and 2019).

“That’s certainly a fair outlook,” Gerrit Cole said last weekend of the feeling that, one way or the other, the road to the World Series, especially as far as the Yankees are concerned, is going to go through the Astros. “Obviously a complete team. We all know that good pitching and defense wins a lot of games in October. Obviously, you’re going to have to have clutch hitting and magical offense as well, but there’s just not a lot of weaknesses over there. They can beat you in a lot of different ways, the same way we can beat you in a lot of different ways. So certainly a fair assumption. But we have to get there first.”

The teams split four games at the Stadium last Thursday through Sunday, with each team being able to take away plenty in the way of confidence for future meetings.  

The Yankees won their two games on walk-off hits by AL MVP favorite Aaron Judge – an RBI single in the ninth inning of Thursday’s 7-6 victory and a three-run homer in the 10th inning of Sunday’s 6-3 win.

In between, the Yankees were dominated by Justin Verlander in a 3-1 loss Friday and then were no-hit by three Astros pitchers in a 3-0 loss Saturday (the Yankees didn't have a hit Sunday before Giancarlo Stanton’s seventh-inning homer).

“We’re going to be seeing each other a lot down the road,” Judge said last weekend of the Astros. “We’ve seen each other a lot in years past in the postseason. You look forward to these weekends, playing good teams and seeing where you stack up.”

The two teams stacked up pretty well going into Thursday night’s game, a solo affair that was a result of the lockout (the Yankees’ initial schedule had them playing a three-game series here the first week of April, a series made up with one game Thursday and the July 21 split doubleheader).

The Yankees came into the night an MLB-best 56-20, giving them a 13-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East. The Astros entered the day with an 11-game lead in the AL West at 47-27, having split their series with the Yankees and taking all four games of a home-and-home against the NL East-leading Mets.  

Clearly, at this point of the season, the Yankees and Astros have separated themselves in the AL. Aaron Boone, whose team is in the midst of a stretch of 20 games without a day off – with Thursday the start of a four-city trip that takes it through Houston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Boston – said a game like Thursday’s can act as “a little shot” of adrenaline for a team.

Boone, as was the case last weekend at the Stadium, naturally wasn’t making too much of games against the Astros at this time of year, but that isn’t to mean the fifth-year manager doesn’t appreciate them, either.

“Just energetic, intense,” Boone said in characterizing the four games vs. the Astros in the Bronx. “For it being June, obviously you know there’s a lot of eyeballs and a lot of focus on that, and you feel that energy. And realize, playing four games, you’re up against a really good opponent. Those are fun things to compete in. Our guys enjoy competing against the best, and you certainly understand that when you’re in the midst of a series with teams like this.”

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