The Twist in a Yankees-Astros A.L.C.S. Rematch? Houston Is Even Better This Time

“For me, I think so,” Luhnow said. “We definitely had concerns about our bullpen towards the end of ’17. Bullpens get challenged in October, but I think this version of our bullpen is the best that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and the starting pitching is the best it’s been, and the lineup is the best it’s been.”

The Astros became the first team ever whose hitters had the fewest strikeouts in the majors and whose hitters had the most. Cole finished the season with a record streak of nine starts with at least 10 strikeouts, helping him amass 326 whiffs in all.

On Saturday, he threw a career-high 118 pitches, and the Rays rarely even had a chance. Cole induced 33 swings and misses, the most in a postseason game this decade. He artfully mixed his pitches: Five of his strikeouts came on fastballs, five on curveballs and five on sliders.

“He’s unbelievable,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who homered off Blake Snell for the Astros’ first run. “Seriously, he’s got the best stuff in baseball. He’s a bulldog on the mound.”

Cole was still throwing 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning, and struggled to explain how he did it.

“I’ve been doing it since I was 17,” he said. “It’s a blessing. I don’t know, I just do it. I mean, I did it all night. It’s just my fastball. I just throw it and it comes out.”

Cole is peaking at the perfect time — not just for the Astros, but also for his value in free agency. The last pitcher with more strikeouts in a postseason game was Kevin Brown, also in a division series in Houston, in 1998. Brown fanned 16 for the San Diego Padres, led his team to the World Series, became a free agent and got the first $100 million contract in major league history from the Los Angeles Dodgers.