Brad Penner | USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees had nine straight games against the rival Rays and Blue Jays and went 7-2 along the way.

Next, they’ll face a real test when the Astros visit the Bronx. The defending American League champions trail the Yankees for the best record in the AL and have won six of their last seven. Their pitching staff also ranks third in MLB with a 3.04 ERA.

Even the rolling Yankees realize this could be an ALCS preview, and making the Astros crash back down to Earth would be ideal.

Houston Astros (43-25) at New York Yankees (51-18)

Time: 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday-Friday; 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday; 1:35 p.m. ET on Sunday.

TV: YES, Thursday, Saturday-Sunday; Amazon Prime on Friday.

Probable pitching matchups (Astros pitcher listed first)

  • Framber Valdez (7-3, 2.78 ERA) vs. Jameson Taillon (8-1, 2.70 ERA)
  • Justin Verlander (8-3, 2.30) vs. Luis Severino (4-1, 3.27)
  • Cristian Javier (4-3, 3.07) vs. Gerrit Cole (6-1, 3.14)
  • Jose Urquidy (6-3, 4.68) vs. Nestor Cortes (6-3, 2.31)

Worth watching: Now 39-years-old, familiar Yankees foe Justin Verlander is back from Tommy John surgery and having another Cy Young-caliber season. His next win will also be the 235th of his career, and he’s only six strikeouts away from 3,100.

It’ll thus be interesting to see which version of Verlander shows up this series. He’s 8-7 with a 3.55 ERA in 22 starts against the Yankees and has been inconsistent at Yankee Stadium, posting a 4.02 ERA. When he takes the ball, Friday night’s crowd could be near-deafening.

Key matchup: All eyes will not only be on Aaron Judge for this series, but also Houston slugger Yordan Alvarez. Both hitters are having great seasons and in the AL MVP conversation, and Alvarez has hit .400 with five home runs at Yankee Stadium in his young career.

Judge, on the other hand, has never hit the Astros well. He’s only a .215 hitter with four home runs and six RBI in 26 games against Houston. Yet, both he and Alvarez are in the midst of career seasons and Judge, an impending free agent, has his arbitration hearing on Friday. Look for him to have a chip on his shoulder and both players to have strong showings in the series.

X-factor: But if Judge’s struggles against the Astros continue, then the Yankees really need Giancarlo Stanton. The former MVP is batting an awful .122 since coming off the injured list. New York continues to win as he finds his stroke again, but this series would be a good time for his bat to return to form.

Stanton has seven homers and a .823 career OPS against the Astros, so this series could be what he needs to break out of his funk.

Final thoughts and prediction: The Yankees are 4-2 against the Astros since losing to them in the 2019 ALCS. This weekend, it’s safe to say they’ll continue their winning ways against Houston. The Astros are 3-6 against AL East teams this year, and yet they’ve only played the Blue Jays and Red Sox. The AL West is also a weak division and the Astros benefitted largely from the Angels’ recent collapse. Verlander may shine, but the Yankees will do the rest. Yankees win three out of four.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.