Yankees host Astros, try to avoid third straight loss

NEW YORK — Dallas Keuchel spent most of the series opener keeping the New York Yankees off-balance with his array of breaking pitches.

Now the Astros will try to hand the Yankees three straight losses for the second time this season when the top two teams in the American League continue a four-game series Friday night.

Houston opened the series with a 3-2 victory that was decided when left fielder Jake Marisnick threw out Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate for the final out.

The Astros are on a four-game winning streak and are 9-2 in their last 11 games. Houston’s 24-11 record is its best 35-game start in team history.

“It’s taking full effect so far in May,” Keuchel said of the team living up to big expectations. “It’s been a fun ride so far.”

Keuchel kept the Astros rolling by striking out nine and allowing an unearned run in six innings Thursday. Carlos Correa helped with a two-run home run and is hitting .333 (16-for-48) with five home runs and 10 RBIs in 13 regular-season games against the Yankees.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start,” Houston catcher Brian McCann said.

Because the Yankees were unable to hit Keuchel consistently, they are trying not to lose three in a row for the first time since April 5-8. Those losses dropped the Yankees to 1-4; since then, they are 20-7.

This is the second time since the team’s slow start that the Yankees have dropped consecutive games. It also occurred April 30 and May 1 and New York followed it up by winning six straight.

“Don’t worry, they believe, simple,” manager Joe Girardi said of getting his team to believe they can win. “I don’t have to sell them on anything.”

Lance McCullers Jr. will take the mound Friday against the Yankees, coming off one of his best starts of the year. In a no-decision last Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels, he allowed one unearned run and two hits in seven innings.

McCullers is among the AL leaders with 50 strikeouts and 10.63 strikeouts per nine innings. However, he recorded just four in his last start and relied on off-speed pitches to get 11 outs via ground balls.

“I think his changeup was a difference maker for him,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “He had command of it. He could throw it below the zone.”

McCullers made his only career start against the Yankees on July 27 in Houston when he struck out 10 over six innings of a 4-1 win while opposing Masahiro Tanaka.

Left-hander Jordan Montgomery will oppose McCullers when he makes his sixth career start. Montgomery will be pitching on extended five days’ rest and hopes to get similar run support as his last outing.

On Saturday at Wrigley Field, Montgomery allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings and the Yankees beat the Chicago Cubs 11-6.

“My changeup was the best it’s been,” Montgomery said. “It was good to have it back the way it’s been most of my life. I threw it 3-2 counts, 2-0 counts, 1-2 counts. Basically any count, I threw it. It was good.”

The Yankees are 3-2 in his starts. In the three wins, they have scored 26 runs but Montgomery also has done his part by allowing opposing hitters a .120 average (3-for-25) with runners in scoring position.