ST. PETERSBURG -- There is some good news remaining for the Astros, although it may not be so easy to see in the rubble of a lost couple of days at Tropicana Field.
The Astros will have Gerrit Cole, who’s been unbeatable for nearly five months, on the mound in an elimination game on Thursday at Minute Maid Park -- a place where they rarely lost in the second half of the season -- with a berth in the American League Championship Series vs. the Yankees on the line.
The fact they will even have to play a winner-take-all Game 5 of the AL Division Series is a stunning turn of events for the Astros, who beat the Rays in the first two games of the series on the heels of a 107-win regular season. A clash with New York in the ALCS seemed inevitable, but Tampa Bay refused to follow the script.
Astros manager AJ Hinch’s decision to start ace pitcher Justin Verlander on three days of rest Tuesday night didn’t pan out as the Rays jumped on him for three first-inning runs and ran away with a 4-1 victory in Game 4 that evened the ALDS at two games apiece heading back to Houston.
“We have Gerrit Cole on the mound and we have an incredible lineup,” Hinch said. “So sure, I like that we've been there before, but I haven't liked any elimination game. It's no fun to go through it. You'd like to eliminate when you have an opportunity. But we'll relish the opportunity.”
Verlander, who held the Rays to one hit in seven scoreless innings in Game 1 on Friday, struggled with his command from the get-go. He gave up four earned runs and seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. He allowed a homer to Tommy Pham in a 32-pitch first inning and a leadoff homer to Willy Adames in the fourth that put Tampa Bay ahead, 4-0.
“I think really that kick-started the momentum,” Hinch said of the Pham homer. “They're a momentum-driven team. They're always creating momentum for themselves. Obviously, their pitching staff did a tremendous job.”
Verlander had allowed three runs in 25 2/3 innings in clinching situations prior to Tuesday. All seven hits he allowed left the bat with at least a 98 mph exit velocity, which is the most hits he’s allowed at that speed or higher since 2015. Verlander said it was the result of a bad slider and inconsistent control.
“I felt good physically; I just didn’t execute physically,” he said. “Really the slider was probably the worst it’s been all year. I needed things to go my way, our way, and then I made mistakes with guys on base. It kind of killed us.”
The Rays are attempting to become the 11th team in postseason history to advance after falling behind 0-2 in a best-of-five series. It’s worth noting that in Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, of the 47 teams to fall behind 0-2, just seven rallied to force a Game 5. However, after getting that far, five of the seven finished that job and won the series.
“I don’t know if anybody had us getting to Game 4, nobody had us going to Game 5,” Tampa Bay catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I know we all believe in each other and even showing up to the field, nobody thinks we’re going to lose today -- and that’s the biggest thing, and everybody’s attitude is right and we’re ready to shock the world.”
One of the reasons Hinch rolled the dice and went with Verlander on short rest in the playoffs was because he had Cole in his back pocket on full rest. Cole has been on an incredible run, going 17-0 with a 1.69 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in his last 23 starts, including a 15-strikeout masterpiece in Game 2. Houston has won his last 14 starts.
Behind Verlander and Cole, who combined for 23 strikeouts and five hits allowed in 14 2/3 innings in the first two games, the Astros roared to a 2-0 series lead. Zack Greinke was roughed up for six runs in 3 2/3 innings in Monday’s Game 3 loss, during which Hinch made the decision to pitch Verlander instead of rookie Jose Urquidy.
“I understand with the results, it's tough,” Hinch said. “It was my decision to put him out there. I felt it was the best chance to win the series, J.V. today and Gerrit in Game 5 if we needed it. We're going to test the latter part of that in Game 5.”
The Rays, meanwhile, threw a steady stream of nasty relievers to shut down Houston’s offense. Even when the Astros appeared to have broken the ice, Adames cut down José Altuve at the plate with a terrific relay throw following a Yordan Alvarez double in the fourth. Robinson Chirinos socked a solo homer in the eighth to make it 4-1.
The Astros had the tying run at the plate in the ninth, but the Rays brought in Blake Snell as their sixth pitcher. He struck out Alvarez and got Yuli Gurriel to ground out to end the game.
“We were fairly confident that Blake was going to be pretty amped up. He was,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “He got in the zone. We had a decision whether, you know, we wanted him after he got Alvarez to strike out, whether we wanted to go to the right-hander for Gurriel. Given the way Blake looked in the three or four pitches he threw to Alvarez, it would be really tough to take him out.”
The loss was Houston’s eighth in its last nine games at Tropicana Field, including five in a row this year. Now the Astros return to Minute Maid Park, where they became the 13th team in Major League history and first since the 1998 Yankees to win at least 60 games at home (60-21).
“Winner takes all,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “It’s going to be a fun game at Minute Maid Park, our favorite place to play, and we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a blast.”