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Verlander starts Game 4 vs. Rays on short rest

Hinch: 'He's one of the best pitchers in the world'
@castrovince
October 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rolling out Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in succession is a heck of a way to put yourself in position for a three-game sweep in a best-of-five postseason series. But what do you do when one-third of that plan goes awry? What happens when it

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rolling out Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in succession is a heck of a way to put yourself in position for a three-game sweep in a best-of-five postseason series.

But what do you do when one-third of that plan goes awry? What happens when it actually gets to a Game 4 and your remaining rotation is an iffy proposition?

In the wake of Monday's 10-3 loss to the Rays in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, the Astros made their decision: You circle right back to the beginning of the line.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 4 HOU 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 5 HOU 3, TB 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 TB 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 10 HOU 6, TB 1 Watch

Verlander has, for all intents and purposes, never made a start on short rest in his Hall of Fame-worthy career. But that's exactly what he will do in Game 4 at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, just three sleeps after a typically successful effort in Game 1 on Friday. The Rays are going with a bullpen day, led by Diego Castillo.

What went into the Verlander pick?

"He's one of the best pitchers in the world," manager AJ Hinch said. "No more complicated than that. He's ready, and it's his game."

Explaining Verlander's short-rest history is mildly more complicated. He did technically do it in Game 3 of the Tigers' 2011 ALDS against the Yankees -- but that was only because his start in Game 1 three days earlier was limited to one inning when the game was suspended by rain.

Verlander also pitched on short rest -- but out of the bullpen -- in 2017 when the Astros were in a very similar position to the one they are now. They were up 2-1 against the Red Sox going into Game 4 in the ALDS at Fenway Park. With the game tied at 2, Verlander relieved Charlie Morton in the fifth inning and pitched 2 2/3 innings, allowing a run on one hit with two walks. Houston tied it and took the lead in the eighth and wound up winning 6-5, with Verlander awarded the "W."

Was there temptation to go with a similar plan for this Game 4, with rookie Jose Urquidy getting the starting nod and Verlander available out of the 'pen?

In a word, no. Suffice it to say, Verlander had a say in this matter. He wanted the ball, so he gets the ball.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

"You can't put all your eggs in one basket and say, 'If we lose [Game 4], we've got Justin and Gerrit in Game 5,'" Verlander said. "It's a crazy game."

So the 'Stros are going with exactly the guy they trust with the season potentially on the line. Teams that get pushed to a Game 5 home game after going up 2-0 have lost that Game 5 eight of 28 times, so, as Verlander said, crazy things happen. The Astros would obviously love to finish this off here, and given the way Verlander controlled Game 1 with seven scoreless innings, there's plenty of reason to believe they can.

But that's not to say this decision is without risk.

For one, while we don't know anything about Verlander on short rest, we do know a little something about starters on short rest in general in October: The numbers aren't great. In the Wild Card era, pitchers have made 120 starts with three or fewer days' rest between starts in the postseason, and they have gone 30-44 with a 4.58 ERA in 627 1/3 innings, according to STATS LLC. (By comparison, starters with four days' rest between starts in that same span have a 3.77 ERA.)

The other risk here is the Rays' potential adjustment to a short-rested Verlander. He was dominant in Game 1, but, technically, not quite as dominant as we've grown accustomed to. He induced 14 swings and misses among his 100 pitches. Only nine times in 34 starts did Verlander induce 14 swings and misses or fewer (his max was 29). It wouldn't necessarily take a major improvement in timing and approach for Tampa Bay to fare better than it did in Game 1.

"Even though Verlander is really good, we just faced him a couple days ago," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "Short days' rest are not … he'll be ready to go, he'll bring his A-game, but we'll plan on doing the same thing."

Another very mild concern -- and one that a team respectful of the process really can't afford to consider -- is that if Game 4 goes awry but Game 5 (with Cole on the hill) goes to plan, the Astros will have cut themselves off from the possibility of using Cole in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, limiting the innings impact Cole and Verlander can have in that round. Taking their chances with Urquidy and the bullpen in Game 4 and then, worst case, going with a fully rested Verlander in Game 5 (and Cole available for Game 1 of the ALCS) was an option here.

With all that said, we are talking about Justin Verlander. That's always going to be an alluring option. Urquidy is great story (signed out of Mexico as an international amateur free agent in 2015, missed all of '17 due to Tommy John surgery, pitched his way onto the radar this year and then proved himself a strike-thrower at the big league level), but he's a rookie who is absolutely and unavoidably unproven on this stage. Plus, the bullpen has some big question marks right now -- all the more after two of its three linchpins (Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna) were shaky in their lone appearance in this series.

So the 'Stros are going with pedigree over Urquidy. It's the safe risky bet and the risky safe bet. It's a bet on one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, with Cole in the Break Glass In Case of Emergency box for Game 5 (or, for all we know in this crazy tournament, the Game 4 bullpen if Houston has a chance to nail it down, as he'd have plenty of time to rest for the ALCS).

Win or lose, it's compelling.

"I'm going to approach it just like the first game and a lot like any other playoff game I've ever pitched," said Verlander, "Kind of in my gut, it feels like a win-or-go-home game."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.