The Astros and the Rays are set to meet in an American League Division Series that could definitely have some juice.
In what Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole has appropriately dubbed the #orangejuiceseries, the Wild Card-winning Rays will take on the 107-win AL West champion Astros in Games 1 and 2 at Minute Maid Park today and Saturday (9 p.m. ET/8 p.m CT on FS1) before returning to Tropicana Field for Game 3 -- and Game 4, if necessary -- on Monday and Tuesday. If the two forward-thinking, analytical-driven teams force a series-deciding Game 5, it will be played back at Minute Maid Park next Thursday.
The Astros, who feature a deep lineup and star-studded rotation led by Justin Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke, will clash with a Rays team that can get creative in how it gets 27 outs and has one of the top bullpens in the game.
“They have unbelievable pitching depth and a solid lineup as well,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “They play team baseball and back up their pitching with great defense. It’ll be a great series and a great test.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash, who played 20 games for the Astros in 2010, and Houston manager AJ Hinch are close friends. In fact, Hinch added Cash to his coaching staff when he managed the 2018 AL All-Star team.
The Rays won the season series, 4-3, with Tampa Bay taking three of four at home to open the season, and Houston winning two of three at Minute Maid Park in late August. The teams have never met in the postseason. This is the Rays' fifth trip to the postseason, and it hasn't won a playoff series since beating the Red Sox in the 2008 AL Championship Series. This year marks the 13th time the Astros have made the postseason, including three years in a row. They are looking for their second World Series championship in three years.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
Game 1 will be today at 2 p.m. ET/1 p.m. CT on FS1.
All games telecast on MLB Network, TBS, FOX and FS1 will be available to MLB.TV subscribers who are authenticated subscribers to the applicable network through a participating pay TV provider.
What do the starting lineups look like?
Rays: After starting seven right-handed hitters against A's left-hander Sean Manaea in the Wild Card Game, the Rays will change plans against the Astros, who are expected to start three consecutive right-handers. A good number of left-handed options created some interesting decisions.
1) Austin Meadows, RF
2) Tommy Pham, LF
3) Ji-Man Choi, 1B
4) Yandy Díaz, DH
5) Brandon Lowe, 2B
6) Travis d'Arnaud, C
7) Joey Wendle, 3B
8) Kevin Kiermaier, CF
9) Willy Adames, SS
Astros: Hinch tinkers with his lineup often, so he's not married to one combination. Bregman has hit anywhere from first to fourth, but he's batting cleanup behind George Springer, José Altuve and Michael Brantley in the lineup's best configuration:
1) George Springer, CF
2) José Altuve, 2B
3) Michael Brantley, LF
4) Alex Bregman, 3B
5) Yordan Alvarez, DH
6) Yuli Gurriel, 1B
7) Carlos Correa, SS
8) Robinson Chirinos, C
9) Josh Reddick, RF
Who are the starting pitchers?
Tyler Glasnow, Rays: Through six weeks this season, Glasnow (6-1, 1.78 ERA) was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He won AL Pitcher of the Month after posting a 1.75 ERA in March and April, but a mild right forearm strain sidelined him for four months. In four starts since returning on Sept. 8, Glasnow has allowed just two runs over 12 1/3 innings and has recorded 21 strikeouts. He is not yet fully stretched out as a starter, so it remains to be seen how many innings he can go in Game 1.
Justin Verlander, Astros: Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA) shows no signs of slowing down at 36 years old, as he reached 20 wins for the second time in his career and struck out 300 in a season for the first time. He led the Majors in WHIP (0.80) and opponents' average (.172) in 223 innings and also threw his third career no-hitter. Verlander is 13-7 with a 3.19 ERA in his career in the playoffs, including 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA in eight postseason games (seven starts) with Houston.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Rays: With Glasnow and Blake Snell still limited on innings, the Rays are going to depend heavily on their bullpen in the first two games of the series. Emilio Pagán, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo will lead the way for Tampa Bay, and Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake and Colin Poche will fill out one of the more talented bullpens in the postseason.
It'll be interesting to see if Ryan Yarbrough, who wouldn't be scheduled to pitch until Game 4, could be used as a reliever in the early games, and Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay could also serve as multi-innings options out of the 'pen.
Astros: With three pitchers at the top of the rotation who threw at least 200 innings -- Verlander, Cole and Greinke -- the Astros hope to ride their starters deep into games before turning the ball over to their top relievers: Will Harris, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Those three figure to get a bulk of the relief innings, unless there's a particular matchup or game situation that dictates otherwise.
Side-armer Joe Smith will be a weapon against right-handers. The rest of the bullpen is a hodgepodge of arms that have been hit and miss this season. Hard-throwing Josh James is one to watch. He struck out 20 batters in his last 10 innings of the regular season.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Rays: They should have all hands on deck out of the bullpen against the Astros. After using just three relievers Wednesday, the Rays' bullpen should be well rested to start the series.
Astros: The Astros will have a full arsenal of rested relievers, considering they'll have four days between the end of the regular season and Game 1.
Any injuries of note?
Rays: The Rays have gotten healthy at the right time, and now they're just awaiting word on Eric Sogard and the deep bone bruise on his right foot. Sogard hasn't played since Sept. 15, but he took a significant step forward over the past couple of days, according to Cash. In a series that will feature a lot of right-handed pitching, getting Sogard back would be a boost for Tampa Bay.
Astros: The status of Correa could loom large in this series. Correa missed two months in the middle of the season with a fractured rib and then sat out the final six games of the season with back tightness -- the same injury that had him on the injured list for nearly a month at the end of the year.
Who is hot and who is not?
Rays: Meadows finished with a 1.216 OPS in 24 games in September, and the Rays usually feed off his success. Yandy Díaz is coming off a two-homer, three-hit performance in the Wild Card victory, and Pham is coming off a month in which he hit .281. Tampa Bay is going to need better production out of d'Arnaud, who finished September with a .633 OPS.
Astros: Reddick (.339) and Bregman (.333) hit well in September. Gurriel (.206) and Brantley (.179) struggled in September. Alvarez hits the playoffs in an 0-for-11 slump.
Anything else fans might want to know?
The Astros are 6-11 against the Rays since Aug. 1, 2017, including 2-6 at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay has won three of four against Houston at Tropicana Field in each of the past two years. The Astros have a .582 slugging percentage in those eight games. ... Verlander, Cole and Greinke went a combined 2-1 with a 1.69 ERA against the Rays this year.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.