ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Two games in, there are no surprises, no tricks, no ambush attempts. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole do what they do. And in Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series against the Rays, they did what they did -- a combined 14 2/3 scoreless innings with 23 strikeouts and an opponent OPS of .310.
For the sake of comparison, National League pitchers had a .322 OPS this year.
“It’s not tough to scout,” Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said of Verlander and Cole’s stuff. “It’s tough to hit.”
And it won’t get any easier for the Rays when the great Zack Greinke takes the mound for the Astros in Game 3 on Monday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
Were this ALDS performance from the Astros’ starting staff borne out of an uncharacteristic approach from either side or a couple dudes totally outperforming their pedigree, there would be little point in getting all hot and bothered about it at this early stage. But from the moment Houston stunningly landed Greinke at the Trade Deadline, we’ve been talking Verlander-Cole-Greinke up as a potential all-time October rotation.
So … is that where we’re headed?
Let’s get a few necessary disclaimers out of the way first:
• We’re only two games into what the Astros hope is an 11-win run to another World Series title. It’s early, y’all.
• The Rays are not what you’d call an offensive juggernaut.
• For all we know, Greinke could get lit up on Monday.
• The Astros’ No. 4 spot (should it even come to that in the ALDS) is an iffy proposition, given Wade Miley’s rough September and Jose Urquidy’s rookie status.
With all that said, Verlander and Cole have already achieved something noteworthy from a historical perspective.
• Relive Greinke's epic 67-word press conference
Perhaps you’re familiar with the game score metric -- a fun little Bill James creation that, while imperfect, is superior to the “quality start” definition in attributing a value to a specific pitcher performance. You start with 50 points, add a point for every out and every strikeout, add two for every inning completed after the fourth, subtract one for each walk allowed, two for each hit and each unearned run allowed and four for each earned run allowed.
Verlander’s Game 1 performance (seven scoreless innings, one hit, three walks, eight strikeouts) registered an 80 on the game score scale. In Game 2, Cole (7 2/3 scoreless, four hits, one walk, 15 strikeouts) scored an 85.
So, in two games, the 2019 Astros alone have already provided two 80-plus efforts. That’s as many as occurred from all clubs combined in 33 previous postseasons (including, in this decade, 2011, ‘14, ‘15, ‘17 and ‘18) and one more than occurred in 35 previous postseasons, per the Baseball Reference Play Index.
Just two games into this thing, the Astros already are one of only 38 teams (going back to 1908) to have multiple 80-point efforts from a starter in a single postseason.
These are the only teams with more than two:
2010 Giants, 4: Tim Lincecum (96 in Game 1) and Jonathan Sanchez (80 Game 3) vs. the Braves in the NLDS and Madison Bumgarner (80 in Game 4) and Lincecum (80 in Game 5) vs. Rangers in the World Series.
2001 D-backs, 4: Curt Schilling (89 in Game 1) vs. Cardinals in the Division Series, Randy Johnson (91 in Game 1) and Schilling (85 in Game 3) in the NLCS vs. the Braves, and Johnson (91 in Game 2) vs. the Yankees in the World Series.
2016 Giants, 3: Bumgarner (83) in the Wild Card Game vs. the Mets, Johnny Cueto (82 in Game 1) and Matt Moore (80 in Game 4) in the NLDS vs. the Cubs.
1986 Astros, 3: Mike Scott in two starts (90 in Game 1 and 82 in Game 4) and Nolan Ryan in one start (90 in Game 5) vs. the Mets in the NLCS.
1983 Orioles, 3: Mike Boddicker (88 in Game 2) vs. the White Sox in the ALCS and Boddicker (85 in Game 2) and Scott McGregor (81 in Game 5) vs. the Phillies in the World Series.
1967 Cardinals, 3: Bob Gibson in three starts (80 in Game 1, 82 in Game 4 and 80 in Game 7) vs. the Red Sox in the World Series.
1966 Orioles, 3: Jim Palmer (82 in Game 2), Wally Bunker (80 in Game 3) and Dave McNally (81 in Game 4) vs. the Dodgers in the World Series.
You might have noted that the only teams on that list to not win (or even go to) the World Series were the 2016 Giants and the ‘86 Astros. Both clubs came undone in late-inning losses. The Giants blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 4 of the NLDS after Moore was pulled, and the Astros suffered extra-inning losses to the Mets in Games 5 (12 innings) and 6 (16 innings) in the NLCS. That hammers the point that was all-too-nearly proven again in Game 2 of this ALDS, when Roberto Osuna had difficulty protecting the lead Cole left behind: What happens in the late innings can render a sterling start moot.
Still, the present-day ‘Stros are a good bet to join that short list, perhaps as early as Monday.
Of course, that’s far from the only way to sort the superior starting efforts in October.
If we have no real regard for total innings pitched, then the greatest performance by a starting staff in a postseason has to be the 44 innings the 1905 Giants’ starters (Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity and Red Ames) tossed without allowing an earned run (they allowed a total of three unearned runs) in a five-game World Series victory over the Philadelphia A’s.
Limit the conversation to the LCS era (going back to 1969), and those aforementioned ‘83 Orioles, who posted a 1.31 starters’ ERA across 61 2/3 innings en route to a World Series title, sure stand out.
The only really fair comparable, though, is the Wild Card era in which we have resided since 1995. A three-round October asks a lot out of a ballclub, and maintaining the 0.00 ERA Verlander and Cole have started is obviously an impossible task. But given what we witnessed in Games 1 and 2 and what we know about Verlander, Cole and Greinke, is it totally unrealistic for this club to vie for best starting performance of the era?
For now, the three that jump off the page are the 1996 Braves, the aforementioned 2001 D-backs and Verlander’s ‘12 Tigers. Those are the only three clubs in the Wild Card era to get at least 50 innings and a sub-2.00 ERA out of their starters.
Here’s how they built those marks:
1996 Braves (lost World Series)
• John Smoltz: 4-1, 0.95 ERA, 38 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 22 H, 0 HR, 33 K, 13 BB
• Greg Maddux: 3-2, 1.70 ERA, 37 IP, 14 R, 7 ER, 32 H, 1 HR, 22 K, 3 BB
• Tom Glavine: 2-2, 1.69 ERA, 26 2/3 IP, 6 R, 5 ER, 19 H, 2 HR, 24 K, 6 BB
• Denny Neagle: 0-0, 2.63 ERA, 13 2/3 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 7 H, 0 HR, 11 K, 7 BB
2001 D-backs (won World Series)
• Schilling: 4-0, 1.12 ERA, 48 1/3 IP, 6 R, 6 ER, 25 H, 3 HR, 56 K, 6 BB
• Johnson: 5-1, 1.52 ERA, 41.1 IP, 7 R, 7 ER, 25 H, 2 HR, 47 K, 8 BB
• Miguel Batista: 1-1, 2.53 ERA, 21 2/3 IP, 6 R, 6 ER, 13 H, 3 HR, 13 K, 8 BB
• Albie Lopez: 0-2, 9.95 ERA, 6 1/3 IP, 7 R, 7 ER, 9 H, 3 HR, 1 K, 4 BB
• Brian Anderson: 1-1, 2.84 ERA, 12 2/3 IP, 4 R, 4 ER, 12 H, 2 HR, 4 K, 4 BB
2012 Tigers (lost World Series)
• Verlander: 3-1, 2.22 ERA, 28 1/3 IP, 7 R, 7 ER, 16 H, 4 HR, 29 K, 6 BB
• Anibal Sanchez: 1-2, 1.77 ERA, 20 1/3 IP, 4 R, 4 ER, 14 H, 1 HR, 18 K, 6 BB
• Doug Fister: 0-1, 1.40 ERA, 19 1/3 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 16 H, 0 HR, 16 K, 7 BB
• Max Scherzer: 1-0, 2.08 ERA, 17 1/3 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 12 H, 1 HR, 26 K, 4 BB
Those are the benchmarks Verlander, Cole, Greinke and Mr. Game 4 will try to pass.
“I think it's hard for us, while we're in it, to put ourselves in a historical context or kind of compare eras,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Like, we're in the middle of something really special here in Houston with the players that we have. I think we're going to look back and have even a greater appreciation for how unique a group of guys this is.”
This should get interesting because, if the Astros do close out the Rays in the coming days, their most likely ALCS opponents -- the Yankees -- have juuuust a little bit more offensive firepower than Tampa Bay. Same goes for the Twins, should a Minnesota miracle occur this week. If Verlander and Cole were susceptible to anything in their Cy Young-worthy 2019, it was the long ball.
Again, though, it’s not like Verlander and Cole did anything completely out of character in Games 1 and 2. And it’s not like Greinke, albeit with a totally different style, isn’t capable of a fitting follow-up Monday to keep the conversation going.
There’s no trickery here. No gimmickry. What you see is what you get.
And what you see so far is greatness.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.