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Astros, experience conquer Rays in ALDS G1

@RichardJustice
October 5, 2019

HOUSTON -- The Astros made every defensive play. The Rays blinked at a critical time. The Astros got seven dominant innings from a pitcher making his 26th postseason start. The Rays got one out in the fifth inning from a starter pitching in the playoffs for the first time.

HOUSTON -- The Astros made every defensive play. The Rays blinked at a critical time. The Astros got seven dominant innings from a pitcher making his 26th postseason start. The Rays got one out in the fifth inning from a starter pitching in the playoffs for the first time.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 4 HOU 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 5 HOU 3, TB 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 TB 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 10 HOU 6, TB 1 Watch

The Astros banged out nine hits and drew five walks from a lineup loaded with playoff veterans. The Rays did not get a runner into scoring position until the eighth inning, and by then, the Astros were in control of Game 1 of the American League Division Series they would win, 6-2, at Minute Maid Park on Friday afternoon.

Drawing conclusions from one game is silly. In October, each day seems to have its own unique ecosystem. Besides that, the Rays are handing the baseball to Blake Snell in Game 2 on Saturday and Charlie Morton in Game 3 on Monday. Snell won the 2018 AL Cy Young Award and Morton was a World Series hero for the 2017 Astros.

Problem is, Houston will be starting Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in those games. No pitcher in baseball has had a better season than Cole, and Greinke is close to punching his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

But Game 1 offered a tidy compare-and-contrast about this series. The Astros have played 25 postseason games the past three seasons. The Rays have played two, both of them this week.

Did Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow give José Altuve a pitch he could pull over the left-field wall in the bottom of the fifth inning of a scoreless contest because he was making his first playoff start?

Probably not. On the other hand, Altuve was playing in his 33rd postseason contest, and these things do matter. The Astros have been here so often that they understand the nerves, tension, etc., that come with a packed house and pressurized environment.

“I think we're comfortable with what we do in big moments,” said Houston manager AJ Hinch. “I think we've been that way. If you look at our players, the pulse, the heartbeat, we have it.”

That experience stuff gets you only so much, right?

“It’s nice to feel comfortable,” Hinch said, “but you still have to go out and do it. It doesn't get you to hit 99 [mph] any easier. It doesn't get you to turn the double plays that we turned any easier. It makes for you coming to the ballpark comfortable in your own skin in a big environment with a lot of attention.”

The Astros won Game 1 for pretty much the same reason they won 107 other times this season. Justin Verlander was brilliant for seven innings of one-hit, eight-strikeout baseball.

“We got Verlander-ed,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

When Glasnow made one of his few mistakes, leaving a fastball in Altuve’s wheelhouse with a runner on in the bottom of the fifth inning, it turned it into a 2-0 lead.

And moments later when Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe could not catch a pop fly in shallow right field, two more Astros sprinted home for a 4-0 lead, and that was pretty much that for Game 1.

Meanwhile, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman started a pair of slick double plays and made a nice play on a Kevin Kiermaier grounder in the third.

In front of an energized hometown crowd, the Astros were just a bit more comfortable, a bit more at ease.

“I don't think [the playoffs] ever feel normal,” Verlander said. “I think they're always intense, and it's always ... you know it's going to be a battle, and each series is always kind of unique and fun in different ways. And the atmosphere is just incredible.”

Verlander and Altuve texted one another Thursday night about how much they were looking forward to making a run at winning a second World Series in three seasons.

“These guys have no quit,” Verlander said. “These guys are hungry. They always are, no matter how many games we win or how good everybody says this team is. Inside the locker room, these guys grind and we work and we prepare ourselves to win baseball games. It's fun to watch. Everybody can kill you.”

If Tampa Bay has an advantage in this series, it might be a very deep, very good bullpen. But bullpens matter less when the other guys have a Verlander who prides himself on getting deep into games.

The Rays knew Glasnow, who returned from the injured list to make four abbreviated starts in September, might not get deep into the game. They were confident their bullpen could take up the slack.

But it never got to that, because the Astros had strengths -- Verlander and a deep lineup -- that showed up before Tampa Bay’s bullpen mattered. But this can also be a step in the process. This is something the Rays have crossed off their to-do list.

They won the AL Wild Card Game in front of a wild crowd in Oakland on Wednesday. On Friday came another noisy house and an experienced playoff team. At least it will not be new when these two teams play Game 2 on Saturday.

“It was pretty unbelievable,” Glasnow said. “Obviously, I wish the score was a little different right now. But for that being my first playoff experience, it was pretty amazing. It was awesome.”

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.