ST. PETERSBURG -- Astros manager AJ Hinch will give the ball to Justin Verlander on Tuesday for Game 4 of his team’s American League Division Series against the Rays. It is exactly what Hinch should do, 100 percent, whether Verlander is pitching on three days' rest or not. The Astros have won 109 games already this season. Now comes the one they need to win the most, at least so far.
“[Verlander] is one of the best pitchers in the world,” Hinch said after the Rays won Game 3, 10-3, at Tropicana Field on Monday afternoon. “It’s no more complicated than that.”
The Astros don’t have to win on Tuesday at The Trop to save their season. They aren’t quite there yet. But they have to win Game 4 so that they don’t have to play an elimination game back at Minute Maid Park, in the Game 5 that would be played on Thursday.
The Rays made some trouble for the Astros on Monday afternoon, hitting Zack Greinke all over the place after being dominated by Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the first two games of this series. Tampa Bay connected off Greinke hard, swatting three home runs off him, and four total. They made The Trop as loud and excited as it can and should be for a team as good and tough and resilient as the 2019 Rays are. On Tuesday, we will begin to find out just how much trouble Tampa Bay really has made for Houston, the team with the best record in baseball.
“I’m going to approach it just like the first game,” Verlander said after Game 3, “and a lot like any other playoff game I’ve ever pitched. Which is kind of in my gut, it feels like a win-or-go-home game.”
It’s not that, of course. Not yet, anyway. Hinch can take comfort in the fact that if Verlander does get beat in Game 4, he has the other best starting pitcher on the planet this season -- Cole -- ready to go in Game 5, after pitching the game of his life on Saturday night. But after everything the Astros have done this season, after the greatest regular season in franchise history, after winning a game more than the Dodgers did and four more than the Yankees, they don’t want to play a win-or-go-home game at Minute Maid Park or anywhere else.
In a perfect world, at least for the Astros, Greinke would have shut down the Rays the way Verlander and Cole already had. Then Verlander would not only have had normal rest, but even extra rest before starting Game 1 of the AL Championship Series on Saturday. It didn’t work out that way on Monday. The big shot was Kevin Kiermaier’s three-run homer off Greinke in the second, after Jose Altuve had hit one out against his old teammate Charlie Morton in the first. Kiermaier changed the day and changed the story of Game 3 with one big, rousing swing.
Then, Morton once again showed why he has made himself into one of the best big-game pitchers in the sport. This time he did it against his old team, for whom he pitched five shutout innings against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, and then four innings of one-run ball at the end of Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers. This October, he pitched five gritty shutout innings in the AL Wild Card Game against the A’s, and five innings of one-run ball on Monday afternoon. Some pitchers, even star pitchers, can go their whole careers without getting the ball in a deciding game. Morton has now done it four times in the past two years.
Hinch and the Astros and their fans are hoping for a "Charlie Morton game" from Verlander on Tuesday. They want Verlander to shut down the Rays here and now, and be ready to pitch Game 2 of the ALCS after Cole pitches Game 1. They want Verlander to pitch the way he did against Tampa Bay in Game 1.
It is absolutely the right decision from Hinch, even if Verlander has never pitched on short rest in the postseason after a full start. I can remember all the hand-wringing about Josh Beckett pitching on limited rest for the Marlins in Game 3 of the 2003 World Series against the Yankees, in the old Yankee Stadium. Beckett was a kid, just 23 at the time. He went out and pitched one of the most dominant October games I have ever seen anybody pitch in the Bronx. The Yankees were helpless that night. Derek Jeter swung and missed at a Beckett fastball in the ninth inning that Jeter still hasn’t seen. Beckett had the arm. Verlander has the arm. You don’t need full rest when you have the arm, not this time of year.
Hinch had the best team all season. Presumably, he still thinks he has the best team. He also has the best pitcher of his time, and one of the best of all time. Hinch will give Verlander the ball on Tuesday in the first game their team has really needed all year. You worry about the ALCS when you get there. You do everything you can to stay away from Game 5. You better believe you give the ball to Verlander. He can rest on Wednesday.