New York Yankees' Jameson Taillon pitches during the first inning...

New York Yankees' Jameson Taillon pitches during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Houston Astros on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in New York. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

The Yankees' only rival this season appears to be history. With 51 wins through the first 69 games, only a handful of teams in the past century could hang with this ’22 pinstriped crew.  

The Astros, of course, would disagree.

Both had double-digit leads in their respective divisions at the start of this four-game series in the Bronx. Both have dangerous lineups anchored by an MVP-caliber slugger. Both feature stingy rotations. Both possess deep bullpens.

The separator? Well, if we’re looking ahead to October, the only thing these two teams are currently playing for is home-field advantage, and the Yankees owned a 7 1/2-game advantage before Thursday’s series opener.

That’s already a sizable cushion. But we don’t expect the Astros to turtle like the AL East has to this point (26-12) or even teams with a .500 record or better (22-9). Don’t figure Houston to be another speed bump. There’s too much bad blood here, too much playoff heartbreak, and frankly, too much cheating by the Astros.

The standings would suggest Houston has something to prove this weekend against this Yankees’ juggernaut. But it’s the Astros who are the defending AL champs, and they’ve been to three of the past five World Series, winning in 2017, courtesy of their barrel-banging, sign-stealing antics.

The Yankees? It’s been 12-plus seasons since their last trip to the Fall Classic, so who’s got the catching up to do? From Houston’s perspective, nobody’s won anything yet.

“Well, they’re measuring their team against us, too,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said before Thursday’s game. “They’ve got the best record in baseball, I think we’ve got the third-base record in baseball ... this is a good barometer to what we may have to add or just to see what we have.”

We’ve spent the past three months drumming up pivotal stretches for the Yankees, circling key series and supposed early-season tests. They keep acing every one of them. This current 13-game gauntlet began with six games against the Rays and three with the Blue Jays, the closet AL East rivals at the time. The Yankees went 7-2, inflating their cushion from nine games to 12 during that period.

So much for the test. But the Astros are in a different category. They inspire real hatred. Not from the players necessarily, but the Bronx fans, whose “[Expletive] Altuve” chants sometimes linger at the Stadium long after Houston has left the borough. Aaron Judge still harbors some bitterness over how that ’17 ALCS was admittedly swiped by the Astros, and general manager Brian Cashman labeled Houston’s sign-stealing as “horrific” as recently as spring training. With all that serving as a backdrop, any visit by the Astros is going to inject some added adrenaline.

“To me, it’s past history,” Aaron Boone said. “I think it’s a shot-in-the-arm series in a tough stretch. Coming back [from Tampa] in the middle of the night, where you get home, you know Yankee Stadium is going to be energized and hopefully we feed off that a little bit. And you’re going up against a great opponent, in a rivalry that certainly exists based on some past things too. I think our guys look forward to that and like playing on the biggest stages against the best teams.”

The two MVP-level titans on these two clubs are almost mirror images of the other. Judge is coming off a two-homer game in Wednesday’s 5-4 comeback win against the Rays that lifted him to 27 overall, tops in the majors. His 1.042 OPS ranked third in the sport, his 52 RBIs tied him for fourth. The Astros’ Yordan Alvarez, a lefty slugger, also smacked a pair of homers Wednesday to help beat the Mets, 5-3, and raise his total to 21, tied with Mike Trout for second in MLB. Alvarez leads the majors in OPS (1.064) has one fewer RBI than Judge (51) and is tops in the AL in hard-hit percentage (63%); Judge is second at 61.3%.

“This is similar to back in the day, McCovey versus Stargell, some of the bad boys of baseball back then, bad meaning great,” Baker said. “If you had to choose the MVP right now, you’d probably go with Aaron Judge, Alvarez and [Jose] Ramirez, those are the guys that are producing the most runs.”

The Astros are about to discover, however, that it’s not as simple as tiptoeing around Judge. Anthony Rizzo, allegedly the consolation prize of this winter’s first-baseman’s market, protects Judge with his own 19 homers — more than twice as many as Freddie Freeman — followed by Giancarlo Stanton and a rejuvenated Gleyber Torres. The Yankees do just about everything better than the last time the Astros saw them, and now we’ll get to see if that’s enough.

“They’re a more complete team now,” Baker said.

On a mission. With the Astros being the latest, and perhaps most irritating obstacle in their way.