TB-HOU preview: What's at stake this week?

September 27th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The past two years, the Astros and Rays have authored a pair of dramatic, back-and-forth postseason series.

In the 2019 American League Division Series, the Astros won two in a row, lost the next two games, then won the decisive Game 5 at Minute Maid Park on their way to the World Series, where they lost to the Nationals in seven games. In last year’s AL Championship Series, the Rays jumped out to a 3-0 lead but still had to hold off Houston in Game 7 on their way to the World Series, where they lost to the Dodgers in six.

The Rays and Astros have been the AL’s best teams over the past six months. They might meet again this October. Houston is aiming to play in its fifth consecutive ALCS and its third World Series in five years. Tampa Bay is looking to return to the World Series, with a better outcome than last year.

Before that, they’ll square off in a three-game series beginning Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.

“It's going to be a tough series against those guys. They've got a good club over there as well,” said Rays right-hander Michael Wacha, who’s scheduled to pitch in the series opener. “A little preview of what's to come, hopefully, and it'll be a good series.”

Here’s a look at what’s on the line this week for Tampa Bay and Houston.

What’s at stake during this series?

Rays: The Rays have clinched their second straight AL East championship. Their magic number to clinch the AL’s best record is down to one, so one Tampa Bay win or Houston loss over the next week will guarantee the Rays home-field advantage through at least the ALCS. Their next win would be their 98th, which would make this the most successful regular season in franchise history. Can they finish at least 3-3 for the club’s first 100-win season, too?

Astros: The Astros have lost four games in a row, which is why they’ve yet to clinch a fourth AL West title in five years. Houston’s magic number to clinch the division is two over Seattle, which hosts Oakland on Monday. Regarding the No. 1 seed in the AL, the Astros have no wiggle room. They’ll have to sweep the Rays and A’s to end the season, and then hope Tampa Bay gets swept by the Yankees.

How have they been playing down the stretch?

Rays: The Rays got off to an uneven start in September, going 9-11 in their first 20 games, including a rare losing road trip through Boston, Detroit and Toronto followed by a series split at home against the Tigers. Since then, they’ve reeled off four straight wins over the Blue Jays and Marlins while outscoring opponents 25-6 during that stretch.

Astros: After going 21-11 from Aug. 19-Sept. 22 to take control of the AL West, the Astros have dropped four games in a row, including a three-game sweep over the weekend in Oakland. Three of the losses have been by one run. Houston has scored eight runs during its four-game losing streak, during which it’s batting .160 with 15 walks and 35 strikeouts. The team ERA is 6.34 in that span, including 10.38 by the bullpen, which blew two saves.

What’s their best/worst possible ALDS matchup?

Rays: Assuming they clinch the AL’s top spot, the Rays are looking at an ALDS matchup with whoever wins the AL Wild Card Game. That’s a crowded field featuring the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners and A’s, in that order. Of that group, Seattle has given Tampa Bay more trouble than anyone else this year, winning six of seven games. The Rays-A’s season series was close, as Oakland won four of seven and outscored Tampa Bay by two only runs. The Rays won their season series against the Red Sox (11-8, plus-2 run differential) and Blue Jays (11-8, plus-7 run differential), and they lead their season series against the Yankees (9-7, plus-38 run differential) with three games remaining.

Astros: Unless Houston can overtake Tampa Bay by winning the rest of its games -- and the Rays losing the rest of their matchups -- the Astros are going to play the White Sox in the ALDS. Houston went 5-2 against the White Sox in the regular season and will likely have home-field advantage. The Astros posted only a .682 OPS against the Sox with seven homers in seven games, but they pitched very well against Chicago. Houston posted a 3.25 ERA with five quality starts in seven games. Michael Brantley, who’s on the IL, hit .320 against the White Sox this year, but Jose Altuve (.250), Yordan Alvarez (.231) and Carlos Correa (.190) were held in check. Alex Bregman missed all seven games against the White Sox with a left quad injury.

What would a postseason rematch look like for each team?

Rays: Pretty fun, most likely. The Astros (plus-205) and Rays (plus-191) have the two best run differentials in the AL. They have the two highest-scoring lineups in the Majors, with Houston (833 runs) slightly outpacing Tampa Bay (829). Along with the Yankees, they also have two of the AL’s three best pitching staffs -- the Rays with a 3.72 ERA, the Astros at 3.74. They both have plenty of postseason experience. The real question for Tampa Bay is how its young starting/bulk-inning pitchers (Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patiño, maybe top prospect Shane Baz) would handle the Astros’ talented lineup -- or, perhaps, how quickly manager Kevin Cash would turn to his deep bullpen.

Astros: The Astros’ deep offense can be held in check by good pitching, which the Rays have in spades. Houston has been streaky this year and tends to either blow teams out or play close games. With a run differential of plus-205, though, the Astros are rarely blown out themselves. Houston’s bullpen is vulnerable. All-Star closer Ryan Pressly was on the mound for back-to-back walk-off losses to the A’s on Saturday and Sunday, and Kendall Graveman has been inconsistent since coming over from the Mariners in a July trade. Beyond that, there are no lockdown relievers.

What else do they need to evaluate during the final week?

Rays: Assuming the Rays get relievers Andrew Kittredge (neck) and Matt Wisler (finger) back from the 10-day IL, they will want to make sure they’re healthy and postseason-ready. Otherwise, it’s mostly a matter of staying healthy and evaluating their postseason pitching options. Has Baz proven he should join McClanahan and Rasmussen in the ALDS rotation? How might Patiño look in a multi-inning relief role next month? How many bulk-inning arms will they need, and what does that mean for Wacha and Ryan Yarbrough? Is Wacha an option to open games or pitch in shorter bursts? How many lefties will they carry, and which ones? The composition of the pitching staff could change depending on their playoff opponent, so they’ll balance trying to win with evaluating every possible option this week.

Astros: The Astros’ No. 1 concern will be getting Brantley’s sore right knee healthy. He hasn’t played since Sept. 11, but he should be back by the end of the regular season. The Astros have some decisions to make on the final few roster spots. Will they carry an extra outfielder (Jose Siri) or infielder (Marwin Gonzalez)? Has Jake Odorizzi done enough in September to land a spot on the roster? Then there’s Zack Greinke, the veteran pitcher who’s struggled in his past three starts and is currently on the IL with a sore neck. He might be out of the ALDS rotation at this point.