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New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros: Jameson Taillon vs. Framber Valdez

The Bombers open a critical four-game set against the Astros with Jameson Taillon on the bump.

Chicago Cubs v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Even sitting at 51-18, the biggest criticism of the Yankees — whether fair or not — has been to question the level of competition they’ve beaten. To say nothing of their most recent 7-2 stretch against the Rays, Blue Jays, and Rays again, I think we can discard any notion of facing weak opponents after this four-game marquee matchup against the Astros — the only other AL team above 40 wins and clear second-best team in the league. Tonight is the date that many of us had circled as the truest litmus test of the first half, and I can’t wait to get it started.

Jameson Taillon gets the ball, looking to build off one of his best starts of the campaign — 5.2 scoreless with eight strikeouts against the Blue Jays. He still leads all qualified starters with a stingy 3.1-percent walk rate, and places in the top-20 in fWAR and FIP. In fact, he is currently the Yankees’ pitching wins leader even after Cole’s 12-strikeout gem over the Rays. Facing an Astros lineup that mashes the curveball better than any other team, I expect a heavy dose of cutters and sliders tonight. As he makes his 14th start, Taillon sits at 8-1 with a 2.70 ERA (141 ERA+), 3.01 FIP, and 60 strikeouts in 73.1 innings pitched

Framber Valdez has been just as good as his opposite number, so we should be in for quite a duel. He far outpaces the field in groundball rate (67.5 percent) for a starting pitcher and has given up the fifth-lowest home run rate (0.44 HR/9) of any qualified starter — a certain recipe for success on the mound. He throws one of the best curveballs in the game and alters its shape and velocity to keep the ball off the barrel. He’ll throw a steady diet of the breakers once getting ahead in the count, so the Yankees should look to attack early against sinkers in the zone. In 13 starts, Valdez is 7-3 with a 2.78 ERA (137 ERA+), 3.32 FIP, and 68 strikeouts in 81 innings.

The Yankees make a pair of changes to the lineup that came from behind to secure the team’s seventh-straight series win in Tampa. Aaron Hicks plays left field, thus pushing Joey Gallo to right, Giancarlo Stanton to DH, and Matt Carpenter back to the bench. Gleyber Torres returns to play second, so DJ LeMahieu slides over to play third and Josh Donaldson sits. In case you missed it, old friend Albert Abreu is back in the bullpen tonight with Clarke Schmidt optioned.

This series will showcase the two most prodigious sluggers in baseball with Aaron Judge, the current leader in homers (27), facing off against Yordan Alvarez, the current leader in wRC+ (201). Alvarez has been on an absurd pace of late, slashing .452/.518/.904 with 9 home runs, 26 RBI, and a 299 wRC+ in his last 20 games. He headlines an Astros lineup that is second in baseball in wRC+ (114) and boasts four other hitters (Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Michael Brantley, and Jeremy Peña) in the top-20 of the MLB wRC+ leaderboard. They’ll be without Peña for at least the first game of the series while he works his way off the IL, but it’s safe to say the AL Rookie of the Year-contenting shortstop has dispelled any regrets of letting Carlos Correa walk.

How to watch

Location: Yankee Stadium — Bronx, NY

First pitch: 7:05 pm ET

TV broadcast: YES, AT&T SportsNet Southwest, MLB Network (out-of-market)

Radio broadcast: WFAN 660/101.9, WADO 1380

Online stream:

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