Astros’ strong pitching to challenge Yankees hitters

HOUSTON – With the first month of the season in the books and Astros starters having completed six trips through the rotation, one overlooked aspect of their utter dominance is the impressive efficiency they displayed in April.

While right-handers Justin Verlander (1.36 ERA), Charlie Morton (1.72), and Gerrit Cole (1.73) entered May ranked second, third, and fourth in the American League in ERA, only Cole closed the opening month ranked in the top five in innings pitched with 41 2/3. Astros manager A.J. Hinch has watched with satisfaction as his starting staff posted the best ERA in the majors (2.54) on an economy of pitches.

Only Cole averaged more than 100 pitches per start, just eclipsing that plateau at 100.2. Verlander (99.2) and Dallas Keuchel (98.8) ranked just behind Cole, while Lance McCullers and Morton averaged 95.8 and 93.5 pitches per start, respectively.

“I’m more interested and excited that they’ve done it in a small number of pitches,” Hinch said. “I don’t really care what the inning totals are; keeping the volume down is very important over the length of the season.

“If I’m a reliever on this team I’m pretty happy with the number of innings the starters are taking off their plate right out of the gate because as the season gets underway and gets longer and as the appearances start to tally up, they’re going to really feel it. I think they should enjoy the lack of work that April created for them. It’s hard to argue that I couldn’t be more pleased with our pitching at this point.”

Keuchel (1-4, 4.00 ERA) will start for the Astros (20-11) on Wednesday. Keuchel has enjoyed rousing success against the Yankees, going 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA over six career starts in the regular season, and 2-1 with a 2.04 ERA over three career postseason starts. He faced the Yankees once last year during the regular season, allowing one unearned run on five hits and one walk with nine strikeouts over five innings in a 3-2 victory at Yankee Stadium on May 11.

Right-hander Luis Severino (4-1, 2.61 ERA) gets the nod for the Yankees (19-10). Severino is 0-1 with an 8.38 ERA over three career appearances (two starts) against the Astros, including 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA at Minute Maid Park. At 24 years, 37 days old, Severino was the youngest Yankees Opening Day starter since Lefty Gomez (23 years, 138 days) on April 12, 1932.

Cleveland Indians right-hander Trevor Bauer caused an uproar on Tuesday when he intimated that the recent additions to the Astros rotation were benefiting from pine tar while on the mound. Bauer cited the correlation between pine tar usage and spin rate, implying that the drastic improvement in spin rates from Cole, Morton, and Verlander wasn’t a coincidence.

Cole, in particular, has been otherworldly since joining the Astros, averaging 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings after posting just 8.7 per nine last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I think you also have to give credit where credit is due,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “This organization has been really good at taking talented guys and helping them get to another level or, in Verlander’s case, a guy that was on a Hall of Fame track and pitching OK and then he got here and is reinvigorated and has pitched really well.

“I don’t read much into it other than they’re really good at game planning over here, they’re really good at addressing deficiencies or enhancing things that guys do really well, and they’ve done a really good job of getting the most out of all their players.”