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Astros Oust the Rays and Earn Another A.L.C.S. With the Yankees

HOUSTON — The warning signs came the night before when two heavily favored teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, were each stunned in a deciding fifth game of a division series, losing in their home ballparks.

The Houston Astros had to be careful the same fate did not befall them on Thursday — only in their case, it would have been worse. The Astros had 107 regular-season wins, the most in baseball, and they also won the most home games, 60. A loss in the first round of the playoffs would have been devastating for a team with World Series aspirations.

“As a manager, both of those games represented the worst-case scenario for a manager,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros manager. “When I went to bed last night I was quite aware that nothing was guaranteed coming into today, even though we had what I felt was the best team.”

They also had perhaps the best pitcher in Gerrit Cole. In another glittering pitching performance by the almost unbeatable right-hander — this one a two-hit gem — the Astros bucked the recent trend and pounded the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-1, in Game 5 of their American League division series.

The win moved the Astros into their third consecutive American League Championship Series, where they will meet the Yankees, who completed a sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Monday.

“I think throughout the year both of us thought we’d have to play each other in the postseason,” Alex Bregman, the Astros third baseman said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The Yankees and the Astros played a memorable championship series in 2017, in which the Astros won Game 7 at home and followed that up by beating the Dodgers in the World Series for the only championship in franchise history.

Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. is Saturday night in Houston, but the Yankees probably will not have to contend with Cole until Game 3.

Cole, who has not lost a decision in over four months, threw eight innings and struck out 10, giving him 25 strikeouts in two starts against the Rays in the series. The 25 strikeouts are the most by a pitcher in a division series, and the most by an Astro in any postseason series.

His only mistake was a bases-empty home run by Eric Sogard, a contact hitter who was inserted into the Tampa Bay lineup to cut down on strikeouts. Sogard swatted a 95 mile-per-hour fastball into the seats in right field, but there was little else the Rays could do against Cole, whose velocity ramped up as the game went on.

Cole struck out Willy Adames looking with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner to end the fifth inning and then got Ji-Man Choi to swing through a fastball that registered 99 m.p.h. to end the sixth.

He ended the seventh by getting Avisaíl Garcia to hit into a double play, and notched two more strikeouts in the eighth.

“I have a great team behind me that plays unbelievable defense,” Cole said. “They don’t take a pitch off, the catching corps is prepared all year, and we smothered them on defense tonight.”

They also played well offensively, scoring four runs in the first inning to set the tone. Then Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve homered in the eighth to cap the night for the delirious Houston fans. Altuve’s homer was his 11th in postseason play, a career record for second basemen.

The Astros are now 35-8 at home in last 43 games at Minute Maid Park, including the postseason. They won four of the seven games they played against the Yankees this year.

On Wednesday, Hinch said he hoped the Astros would take an early lead to get the crowd into the game and energize his players. He got that and more as Houston scored three times before Rays starter Tyler Glasnow even recorded an out. It was almost the perfect opening salvo for Houston.

George Springer, Brantley and Altuve all singled to produce one run. Then Alex Bregman, who came to the plate with chants of “M.V.P.” ringing throughout the stadium, responded with a double into the gap in right center field to score two more.

One out later, Yuli Gurriel singled to left, scoring Bregman from third for the fourth run of the inning. With Cole on the mound, the lead was virtually insurmountable.

“He dominated twice against us, and he’s been dominant all year,” said Austin Meadows, the Rays left fielder. “He’s incredible.”

Cole has not lost a decision since May 22, going 18-0 with a 1.66 earned run average, including his two postseason starts. In Cole’s starts, the Astros have gone 22-2.

“We knew he was going to come out hot,” Hinch said. “We know he’s going to get his strikeouts. We know he’s going to set a tone. He’s intense.”

In Game 2, Cole threw seven and two-thirds shutout innings, but when his pitch count rose over 110 in the eighth inning, he began to show signs of fatigue. He was pulled after giving up a double and a walk, a decision that almost backfired. The Astros bullpen faltered before ultimately securing the final four outs.

On Thursday Cole threw 95 pitches through seven innings, and when he jogged out to the mound for the eighth the fans roared. He threw a fastball that sizzled past Joey Wendle’s bat at 99 miles per hour for a third strike, got Kevin Kiermaier on a wicked curve ball for his 10th strikeout, and on Cole’s 107th pitch, Adames bounced out to Altuve.

Roberto Osuna closed the game out in the ninth, and when he struck out Choi to end the series, Cole led the charge out of the Astros dugout to celebrate, wrapping Osuna in a bear hug.

“I was just fired up,” Cole said with a belly laugh as his teammate Carlos Correa crept from behind and poured champagne over Cole’s head.

“You are a bad man,” Correa yelled. “You’re the baddest of the bad.”

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