Verlander faces Happ when Astros, Blue Jays tangle

HOUSTON — For a third consecutive start on Sunday, Houston Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole encountered a stretch where he wrestled with his control, a span of innings that called for his battery mate to help steer him through the rough patch and into smoother waters.

Cole needed 33 pitches to post a scoreless first inning, and while he logged a season-low-tying five innings in the Astros’ 11-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals, Cole was effective enough to pick up his ninth victory of the season and produce a line than plenty of pitchers would envy.

Cole allowed only one run, two hits and three walks with eight strikeouts. Despite a challenging start, Cole rebounded and retired the side in order in the third and fifth.

The backstop — Max Stassi caught Cole on Sunday — is responsible for helping the starting pitcher navigate trouble.

Veteran Brian McCann will likely be back behind the plate on Monday when the Astros open a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays at Minute Maid Park.

“You’ve got to try and find whatever the correction pitch is,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “If a guy’s delivery is one way you might find a correction pitch to get him kind of locked in. You have to keep going to the secondary pitches even if he doesn’t have a feel for it until it clicks for him. You’ve got to keep going to the well as much as you can to hopefully where he finds it.

“Whether that’s rhythm or timing of pitches, every pitcher has a key that will get him back in line with his delivery, his arm action, and his execution. You’ve got to find that by how you sequence your pitches along with attacking the hitter. It’s a nice challenge for the catcher.”

Right-hander Justin Verlander (9-2, 1.60 ERA) will start the series opener for the Astros (52-27). Verlander suffered a defeat in his lone start against Toronto last season, allowing three runs, three hits and three walks with five strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings of a 7-2 setback on July 14 with Detroit.

He is 3-5 with a 4.67 ERA in 12 career starts against the Blue Jays.

Verlander leads the American League in ERA, WHIP (0.78), opponent batting average (.164) and OPS (.506), and is tied for second in innings (107) and ranks fourth with 130 strikeouts.

The Blue Jays will counter with left-hander J.A. Happ (9-3, 3.56 ERA) on Monday. He is 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight career starts against Houston, with whom he spent parts of three seasons (2010-12) and compiled an 18-28 record and 4.84 ERA in 59 starts.

Happ allowed six runs (two earned), seven hits and three walks with three strikeouts in four innings of a 19-1 loss to the Astros on July 9 at Rogers Centre.

Happ is 5-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 46 innings during his last seven starts.

Toronto (36-41) split its four-game series with the Los Angeles Angels with a 7-6, 10-inning road win on Sunday. The Blue Jays are 6-6 in their last 12 games and were last above .500 on May 16.