Astros manager Dusty Baker had closer Ryan Pressly warming in the bullpen as he strolled to the mound to visit pitcher Zack Greinke with runners at first and second and one out in the sixth inning Wednesday. With red-hot Randy Arozarena -- who had homered his previous at-bat -- coming up as the go-ahead run, it was decision time for the veteran manager.
While Greinke stood silent, veteran catcher Martín Maldonado laid out his case for why Greinke should stay in the game. Matchups and pitch counts went out the window. Baker decided to trust his gut -- and his catcher -- and keep Greinke on the mound for a crucial at-bat.
The decision, though surprising, proved to be a solid one for Baker, who watched Greinke strike out Arozarena swinging and -- after an infield hit that loaded the bases -- strike out Mike Brosseau swinging to end the threat. The Astros preserved the lead and went on to beat the Rays, 4-3, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at San Diego’s Petco Park. The Rays lead the best-of-seven series, 3-1, heading into Thursday’s Game 5.
“It was nice having someone have confidence in me,” Greinke said. “Since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. It was nice having that happen in an important time like that.”
After Greinke threw six innings and struck out seven with two runs allowed, Cristian Javier allowed one run in two-plus innings and Pressly finally entered the game in the ninth, stranding the tying run at third base to end the game and send the Astros into tomorrow.
Of the 38 previous teams to fall behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven postseason series, only eight had avoided a sweep and forced Game 5. Of those, three made it to Game 6. The only team to win a series after trailing 3-0 was the 2004 Red Sox in the ALCS against the Yankees.
“Nobody's ready to go home,” Baker said. “I'm not ready to go home. Nobody's ready to go home. We're ready to go to Dallas [for the World Series in Arlington]. ... We're still one step closer to the top of that mountain, but we got a couple steep cliffs the next couple days.”
The decision to leave Greinke in the game defied modern logic, but was a nod to Baker’s throwback tendencies. The 71-year-old earned a reputation for riding his starters too long in his first 22 years as a Major League manager, but he had to tread carefully with a young pitching staff getting on-the-job training with so many injuries. But Greinke is as experienced as they come and enabled Baker to manage with his gut -- a rarity in this age.
“I would say he is really, really good at that,” Greinke said. “I’ve been impressed. He reads people really good, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a wrong decision. When he trusts what he sees, he sees the right thing almost 100 percent of the time. Not everyone has that skill. Not many people do, but he’s been impressive in that regard, for sure.”
The previous time Greinke pitched in an elimination game, he rose to the occasion, too. It was Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, and Greinke carried a shutout into the seventh inning against the Nationals. Greinke was lifted by former manager AJ Hinch after giving up a one-out homer to Anthony Rendon and walking Juan Soto, and the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead.
When asked if his comments about the team not always having confidence in him stemmed from last year’s Game 7, Greinke said: “That was one example, but there’s probably a dozen examples if you look back at it.”
Although the soft-spoken Greinke didn’t participate in the mound conversation in the sixth inning Wednesday, Greinke said it was intense.
“Maldy said that I was looking good and that I could get out of it,” he said. “Like I said, I thought it was nice having some guys have confidence in you. That was good. I knew it was an important time of the game and it was a tough part of their lineup you’re having to face, too. And it worked out. If it didn’t work, things would be different. It worked out and I felt good all the way around.”
Baker said Maldonado’s encouraging words and the look in Greinke’s eyes made the decision easier.
“Maldy was adamant about, ‘He can get this guy,’” Baker said. “I said ‘OK, you got it then.’ This is the ballgame right here. It was more old school, doing the right thing that I thought was right. And we came out ahead.”
Greinke earned his first playoff win since Game 2 of the 2015 National League Division Series, a span of 11 starts. Jose Altuve and George Springer provided the offense for the Astros. Altuve hit his 18th career playoff homer in the first and added an RBI double in the sixth before Springer broke a 2-2 tie with his own 18th career playoff homer, a two-run shot off Tyler Glasnow in the fifth.
“Greinke really, really pitched,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He has a really good changeup. The changeup and the little cut fastball that he throws, there's not a ton of velo separation there, but there's a lot of depth separation. We got chasing on the changeup and the front-door cutters that he was throwing, cut fastballs to the righties, it looked like he was just painting, wherever he wanted to.”
It was only after Greinke was out of the game did he express his thanks to Baker for trusting him.
“He just said, ‘I know you probably went against the book. That’s what you would’ve done in the old school.’” Baker said. “And I told him, ‘Right, that’s what I would’ve done.’”