HOUSTON -- Thursday's Game 5 of the American League Division Series between the Astros and Rays will be compelling for the obvious reasons: the winner-take-all suspense, it's the only postseason game that will be played that day and it has a chance to be remembered as one of the most dramatic upsets in playoff history, should the Rays prevail.
But there is an interesting side story that has caught a little traction over the past day or so, ever since the Rays beat the Astros in Game 4 at Tropicana Field on Tuesday to push the series to its full capacity. Soon after the conclusion of Game 4, the starting pitchers for the series finale were announced, and just like that, a team not named the Rays or Astros was thrust into the conversation: the Pirates.
Cole and Glasnow were Major League teammates for only two seasons, but Cole has vivid memories of watching Glasnow in the early years, during Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla., and sensing he had a chance to be something special.
"At that time, he was pretty inconsistent, but I still saw him throw 99, 100 [mph] on the backfields, which, being early in professional baseball, [he] probably some extra adrenaline," Cole said. "But [it's] hard to get adrenaline going on the backfield. So I knew that it was something unique."
Five years later, Cole and Glasnow were teammates in the big leagues. Fast forward three more seasons, and they'll face each other in a pivotal Game 5 that will dictate who gets to move on to play the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, which begins on Saturday.
Cole and Glasnow took different paths to get to this crucial moment. Cole dominated throughout the season, setting a franchise record with 326 strikeouts and he's riding a 17-game winning streak over his past 23 starts -- including a historically dominant performance in Game 2.
Glasnow missed nearly four months with a right forearm strain and returned in September in accelerated rehab mode, working overtime to build enough endurance to justify a spot in the Rays' rotation.
The story of Cole and Glasnow isn't so much how they got here this year, however. It's how much they've improved since they joined their respective teams, both of which are, not coincidentally, lauded as the most analytically-minded in baseball. The Astros and Rays not only have reams of information at their fingertips, but they know how to perfectly present that to their players in a way that it's absorbed, accepted and then executed.
That's not to say Cole and Glasnow weren't successful as Pirates. Cole was the staff ace for many years and was one of several young draftees that made the Pirates modern-day winners after two decades of futility. Glasnow, loaded with potential, struggled early, but he was still considered a bright spot as the Pirates mapped out their future.
But neither performed for the Pirates like they have for their current clubs.
Glasnow, who was traded to the Rays in 2018 along with outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Shane Baz in exchange for Chris Archer, posted a 7.69 ERA in 15 outings for the Pirates in 2017, walking 6.4 batters per nine innings. Over his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Glasnow walked 57 over 85 1/3 innings.
Two years later, not only did he need almost no time after the long layoff to get back up to speed, but his numbers soon were comparable to the elite pitchers in the league, though on a smaller sample size scale.
Glasnow had an average spin on his curve of 2,907 rpm. That was sixth-highest of 98 starters to throw at least 200 curves this season.
"It's been pretty remarkable what he's done, able to establish strikes in the zone, landing his breaking ball early," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "And he's really only got to land the curveball a couple of times early in a ballgame. Once he does that, I think the opposing lineup recognizes it, you start to see the chase."
Cole, traded to Houston on Jan. 13, 2018, for pitchers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove, outfielder Jason Martin and infielder Colin Moran, is seventh in the Majors in curveball spin, at 2,901 rpm. Cole’s fastball spin is notable, too: He averaged 2,529 rpm this year, which was fourth-highest among 93 pitchers to throw at least 1,000 fastballs.
If both bring to Game 5 what they did earlier in the ALDS, this finale has a chance to be another pitching gem, one of several between the two clubs this series. Glasnow allowed two runs over 4 1/3 innings in Game 1. Cole dominated in Game 2, throwing 7 2/3 shutout innings, with an Astros postseason record 15 strikeouts.
And while they won’t be rooting for each other in a literal sense, it’s fair to assume Glasnow and Cole will bring a healthy dose of respect for one another to this game, regardless of the final score.
"I haven't seen him be that good for that long,” Cole said of Glasnow. “But I'm really proud of how far he's come from meeting him in Pirate City about eight or nine years ago.”