After losing Game 5 of last year’s American League Division Series to the Astros, the Rays looked around the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, knowing that the young core would likely get another chance at beating the playoff-tested Astros and advancing to the World Series.
They’ll get their opportunity just one year later. The two teams are set to battle it out in a best-of-seven AL Championship Series, which begins tonight, with the winner moving on to the World Series at Globe Life Field. The Astros are looking to advance to the World Series for the second year in a row and third time in four years.
Despite finishing with a sub-.500 record (29-31), the Astros are back in the ALCS for the fourth year in a row after sweeping the Twins in the AL Wild Card Series and eliminating the A’s in four games in the ALDS. Houston’s offense, behind Carlos Correa, exploded in the ALDS with 12 homers in four games. Correa has four home runs in six postseason games this season and 15 in his postseason career.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, was carried by a dominant pitching staff -- which finished second in the AL in ERA (3.56) -- to its first AL East division title since 2010 and the top record in the AL (40-20). The Rays are making their first ALCS appearance since the 2008 season, when they lost in the World Series to the Phillies.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
The game will air on TBS at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. It is also available to stream on MLB.TV with authentication.
Who will be the home team?
The Rays are the higher seed, so they will be the home team for Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 and the visiting team for Games 3, 4 and 5. They will bat first when they’re the visiting team and last when they’re the home team.
What are the starting lineups?
Astros: For just the second time in their seven postseason games, the Astros are opting to start Aledmys Díaz over Josh Reddick, who may be a factor as a late-game defensive replacement in the big outfield at Petco Park.
Rays: With lefty Framber Valdez taking the mound in Game 1, the Rays opted for a right-handed-heavy lineup that includes Game 5 hero Mike Brosseau in the leadoff spot. The team went with a more balanced attack against the Yankees, mostly because Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton loomed in the bullpen.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Astros: Valdez (5-3, 3.57 ERA), who was Houston’s best starter in the regular season, will start Game 1. Valdez threw five scoreless innings in relief in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series and held the A’s to two runs in seven innings in Game 2 of the ALDS in his first playoff start. He’s a workhorse who can throw deep into games and mesmerize opposing hitters with his curveball.
Rays: Blake Snell (4-2, 3.24 ERA) will get the Game 1 start for the Rays after not being used in Game 5 against the Yankees. The left-hander will pitch on full rest and Tampa Bay will need him to give the club length, as its top three relievers, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo, all pitched two innings or more in the series-clinching win over New York.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Astros: The big question is what the Astros will do with Cristian Javier, the superb rookie starter who pitched so well in relief in their first two short series. Javier threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in three postseason outings and has been a crucial bridge from the middle of the game to the back end of the bullpen. With the potential for seven games in seven days, Houston might have to use him as a starter, though.
Regardless, the Astros will try to rely on their high-leverage relievers, which means Enoli Paredes in the setup role and Ryan Pressly closing. They’re comfortable with lefties Blake Taylor and Brooks Raley in tough spots as well. Andre Scrubb might be called upon more in a longer series with no days off. Manager Dusty Baker probably pushed Josh James too far in Wednesday’s Game 3 loss, but he could be a hard-throwing option to exploit a matchup.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Astros: No. After two days off between closing out the A’s in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS, they’re rested and ready.
Rays: They’ll be a little tired, but The Stable will be ready to run, if needed.
Any injuries of note?
Astros: Greinke was diagnosed with arm soreness during the ALDS and didn’t pitch until Game 4. After the game, he was relieved when the doctors told him there was no structural damage and was hoping to be ready for the ALCS.
Who is hot and who is not?
Astros: Correa is hitting .500 in the playoffs (10-for-20) with four homers and 11 RBIs. He was one of six Astros regulars to bat .368 or higher in the four games against the A’s: Tucker (.412), Altuve (.400), Bregman (.400), Springer (.389) and Brantley (.368). The lower third of the batting order has not fared as well: Reddick (2-for-11), Maldonado (2-for-14, eight strikeouts) and Gurriel (1-for-15).
Rays: Despite going 0-for-7 over his last two games, Arozarena is still one of the hottest hitters in the Majors. The 25-year-old outfielder is batting .444 (12-for-27) with three home runs in seven postseason games. His 25 total bases were the most in Major League history through his team’s first five games of a single postseason.
Lowe, who led the Rays with 14 homers in the regular season, continues to struggle in the postseason. Lowe went 0-for-3 on Friday and is now 2-for-26 with just one RBI. However, Tampa Bay is going to stick with Lowe in the lineup, according to manager Kevin Cash.
How have these teams fared against each other in the playoffs?
In their only playoff meeting, the Astros eliminated the Rays in five games in last year’s ALDS. The home team won each game, with Houston closing out Game 5 at Minute Maid Park with Gerrit Cole on the mound.
Anything else fans want to know?
Astros: Correa’s 45 career postseason RBIs ranks ninth in Major League history, trailing Atlanta’s Chipper Jones (47) for eighth place. … The Astros have won eight of their last playoff games away from Minute Maid Park. … The only player who has appeared in more postseason games since the start of 2015 than the 56 each by Altuve, Correa, Reddick and Springer is Justin Turner of the Dodgers with 57. Bregman and Gurriel have each played in 50 playoff games in that span, giving the Astros six of the top eight spots.
Rays: Combining regular season and postseason, the Rays have only lost once in their last 18 series since Aug. 4, going 13-1-4. … 75.6 percent of the runs scored by the Rays in the ALDS were via the home run, setting the highest rate all-time for a playoff series.