HOUSTON — Following the Astros’ Game 1 victory over the Seattle Mariners in the American League Division Series, Houston ace Justin Verlander arguably sported the widest smile of anyone involved.

Courtesy of a three-run, walk-off home run from Yordan Alvarez, Verlander was able to put behind him one of his least effective postseason starts.

Verlander, who will start Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the visiting New York Yankees on Wednesday, allowed six runs on 10 hits and one walk over four innings against the Mariners on Oct. 11.

Verlander (0-0, 13.50 ERA postseason; 18-4, 1.75 regular season) sustained a right calf injury in a start against the Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 28, a malady that sent him to the injured list for nearly three weeks.

In the four starts after his return, Verlander went 2-1 with a 1.17 ERA and 31 strikeouts over 23 innings — stellar statistics but an overall performance that, according to Verlander, paled compared to the roll he was on prior to the setback.

In the 11 starts before the DL stint, Verlander went 8-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings.

“I think since the calf injury, coming back hasn’t been as consistent as I would like,” the 39-year-old veteran said. “I was on a pretty good stretch before that.

“Then you see, like (Cardinals right-hander) Adam Wainwright for example, he tweets out after the season that his lower-body injury kind of messed with his mechanics. Even though mine wasn’t severe, little tweaks to the lower half, you hear pitchers talk about it all the time. We work so hard on our legs and lower-body strength because that’s where we generate (power) from.”

The Astros remain confident that Verlander will reclaim his form for the series opener against the Yankees, against whom Houston finished 5-2 in the regular season. Verlander is 9-7 with a 3.44 ERA in 23 career regular-season starts against the Yankees, 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA in eight career postseason starts.

The Yankees will arrive in Houston late off their elimination of the Cleveland Guardians in the AL Division Series on Tuesday night, providing the Astros an edge that might prove temporary given the stakes. New York topped visiting Cleveland 5-1 in the decisive fifth game.

“Then there will be four — the Final Four, so to speak — that are left standing,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “So you just look forward to it and feel fortunate that we’re in this position.”

The Yankees took the final two games from Cleveland to set the stage for their rematch against Houston, which eliminated the Yankees from the postseason in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

The Astros utilized home-field advantage over the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS by winning all four games at Minute Maid Park. Houston went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series that season, but the title ultimately was tainted when Major League Baseball ruled two years later that the Astros employed illegal means to steal signs from opposing catchers.

In Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS, Houston claimed a memorable series walk-off win over the Yankees when Jose Altuve clubbed a two-run homer off Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees must hope the past isn’t prologue. With their rotation stretched by two weather-related postponements in the ALDS, they will turn to Jameson Taillon (0-1, infinity ERA postseason; 14-5, 3.91 regular season) in Game 1. Taillon made one appearance against the Guardians, allowing two runs on three hits while failing to record an out in a 4-2 loss in Game 2 on Friday.

New York’s lack of rest following the ALDS will serve as a talking point, one the Yankees seem prepared to summarily dismiss now that they have advanced to face their postseason nemesis.

“Well, I mean, the challenge is we’re facing a great team,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “As far as the quick turnaround, we’ll be fine. I mean, that’s baseball. We do that all the time.

“You know, we’ll walk in there with some confidence. We know they are a great team and rested and ready. We look forward to the challenge.”

–MoiseKapenda Bower, Field Level Media