HOUSTON -- There’s a T-shirt for sale in local sporting goods stores that features images of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Gerrit Cole next to each other in their pitching windups with the words “Good Luck Y’all” and “Houston” in block print below the players.
The message is simple and to the point, and baseball fans, especially Astros fans, know exactly what the shirt is trying to convey: Any team that faces the Astros in the postseason is going to have its hands full with Houston’s uber-talented rotation led by American League Cy Young Award favorites Verlander and Cole and former Cy Young winner Greinke, who figure to start in that order in the AL Division Series, which begins Friday at Minute Maid Park.
“This is a rotation that’s second to none,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.
Indeed. Their resumes are impeccable, and they’ve each had terrific seasons, but it’s October now. To keep the T-shirt from winding up on the discount rack next week, Verlander, Cole and Greinke must pitch up to expectations while carrying the burden of perhaps being one of the best starting rotations in recent memory that a team has carried in the postseason.
“I feel like, by now, if you don’t understand that the playoffs can be somewhat of a crapshoot sometimes, then you don’t watch enough baseball,” Cole said. “The expectations have been there all year and we’ve kind of just pushed them aside and taken care of our business, and I expect us to do the same thing [this] week. Nobody’s immune from getting beat. If you’re not aware of that, you really don’t have a great perspective. It’s what drives all of us ... because anything can happen on any night.”
Verlander 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. That came Saturday during a game in which he struck out his 3,000th career batter. He went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and .172 opponents’ average in 223 innings. He also threw his third career no-hitter.
“I think any time you have a team like this throughout the season, the playoffs are not scripted,” Verlander said. “The best team doesn’t always win. It’s one of those crazy things about baseball that I love. I think no matter what happens, I’ll always look back at this season so fondly, not only for personal reasons, but just to understand in my time throughout baseball, just to know how special it is to be surrounded by the guys we have right now. It doesn’t happen too often in this game.”
Cole has emerged as a lethal power pitcher, going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, .186 opponents’ average and 326 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings. After a sluggish start, Cole went 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA in his final 22 starts of the season, striking out 226 batters in 146 2/3 innings. Either Cole or Verlander was first or second in the AL in wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and opponents’ average.
Greinke, who came over from Arizona in a July 31 trade, went 18-5 with a 2.93 ERA in 33 starts with between the D-backs and Astros. In 10 starts with Houston, he was 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA and came within two outs of his first career no-hitter in his final start of the regular season last Wednesday in Seattle.
“This is very much a luxury for us, but you have to go and play,” Hinch said. “We feel really good about the guys we’re putting out there. My guess is, the team we’re playing, whoever they’re putting out there, they’ll feel pretty good about their guys, too. Ours are historically significant, and they want to make an impression in the postseason that matters.”
Here’s how some other recent dominant pitching rotations fared in the postseason:
Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA), Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.79), Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40), Roy Oswalt (9-10, 3.69)
Halladay went eight innings to pitch the Phillies to a Game 1 victory over the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, but Lee was rocked for five runs on 12 hits in six innings in Game 2. Hamels threw six scoreless innings to win Game 3, but the Cards rallied to win the best-of-five series. Oswalt lost Game 4 by giving up five runs in six innings, and Game 5 was a doozy. St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter threw a three-hit shutout to beat Halladay, who gave up one run in eight innings.
Barry Zito (14-12, 3.30), Tim Hudson (16-7, 2.70), Mark Mulder (15-9, 3.13)
“The Big Three” helped the A’s win three AL West titles during their five years together, including in ’03. Mulder was injured and couldn’t pitch in the playoffs, so it was up to Zito and Hudson in the ALDS against the Red Sox. Hudson left Game 4 after one inning with a strained oblique. Zito threw five scoreless innings in Game 5 before giving up four runs in the sixth in a 4-3 loss that was Oakland’s third in a row to lose the series.
Tom Glavine (18-11, 2.96), Greg Maddux (16-6, 2.62), Kevin Millwood (18-8, 3.24)
The Braves had another early playoff exit, this time with the Giants beating them in the NLDS. Glavine was rocked for 13 runs and 17 hits in 7 2/3 innings across two starts. Maddux gave up two runs in six innings in one start, and Millwood was solid, allowing four runs in 11 innings in two starts.
Curt Schilling (22-6, 2.98), Randy Johnson (21-6, 2.49)
There may be no better comparison to this year’s dominance of Verlander and Cole than the Schilling-Johnson-led D-backs. Johnson won the third of his four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards that season with crazy strikeout numbers, and Schilling finishing second in the Cy Young voting in 2001 and ’02. They were both nearly unhittable in beating the Yankees in a tremendous World Series that went seven games.
Greg Maddux (18-9, 2.22), Tom Glavine (20-6, 2.47), John Smoltz (17-3, 2.90)
Too bad for the Braves that their dominating run through the 1990s was coinciding with the emergence of the Yankees' dynasty, but they even fell short of the World Series in ‘98. With a rotation led by three Hall of Famers, they swept the Cubs in the NLDS before losing in six games in the NLCS to the Padres, who outpitched the Braves behind Kevin Brown, Andy Ashby and Sterling Hitchcock.
So if recent history is any indication, the Astros certainly aren’t a shoo-in to win the World Series despite having the deepest starting rotation in baseball. Fortunately for Houston, it also possesses perhaps the best lineup in the postseason as well. But Verlander, Cole and Greinke will be front and center in October as the Astros look to win a second World Series championship in three years.
“With this rotation, we talked about it all year how they’ve been a stable part of what’s going on here and how we’re winning,” Hinch said. “Historically and looking at the context of it, I really haven’t paid a lot of attention to it. I just know that they're ours and we have a chance to put a good starting pitcher out there every game regardless of venue. I’m proud of this rotation. I think it’s the best rotation in baseball, and you need good performances out of those guys to get as many wins as you can in the playoffs.”
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.