The Rays are back home after a 10-day trip that saw them cover nearly 7,000 miles, visit three cities in two countries and play six games. Along the way, they uncovered something that should give them hope in their American League Division Series against the Astros: Houston's bullpen could be the weak link in an otherwise unbreakable chain.
The Astros' shaky relief corps -- which registered an 8.10 ERA between Games 1 and 2 -- is one of the reasons that Tampa Bay can still get back in this best-of-five ALDS despite being in an 0-2 hole going into Game 3 at Tropicana Field.
Here are five keys to the Rays turning the ALDS around:
1) Charlie Morton
For the first time in the series, the Rays have the starting-pitching advantage. But given that Zack Greinke is starting for the Astros, it’s not a significant one.
It’s there, though. Morton was a World Series hero for the Astros in 2017 and embraces moments like this. Greinke’s career postseason ERA is 4.03. Starting pitchers like to say they’re not actually pitching against the other team’s starter. It’s our hitters vs. their starter, etc.
In this case, that’s not true. Morton must match Greinke inning for inning. If that means five innings, then it’s five innings. But if Greinke gets the game into the sixth, seventh or eighth, that’s what Morton must do.
2) Make it a bullpen game
The Rays have a better bullpen than the Astros, and if they can turn Game 3 into a matchup of the 'pens, they’ve got a chance to win. The Astros' bullpen was shaky at times in the second half of the season. In Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, their top late-inning arms -- Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna -- did not pitch well.
The Rays are hitting .375 against Houston relievers in the series, and even if that’s only 3 1/3 innings, it’s a glimmer of hope. Unless Astros manager AJ Hinch plans to pitch Justin Verlander in relief in Game 3 on two days' rest, the Rays may have found a path back into the series.
3) Home sweet home
The Rays are expecting a rare packed house for Game 3, which could make Tropicana Field every bit as loud as Minute Maid Park was for Games 1 and 2. Rays manager Kevin Cash urged his players to embrace the atmosphere in Houston and to feed off its energy. Cash told them that the postseason is something that many players never experience, and that beyond the pressure and expectations, players should enjoy the time they’ve earned on baseball’s biggest stage.
His players appear to have done that, but on Monday, it could be 35,000 fans rooting for the Rays instead of against them. After playing most of this season in front of smaller crowds at home, look for the Rays to be inspired by their hometown fans.
4) Turn the page
If the Rays win Game 3, the pressure will be on the Astros as Hinch decides whether to use Verlander on short rest or run out rookie right-hander Jose Urquidy or struggling veteran Wade Miley in Game 4.
Forget that the Astros would still have Gerrit Cole lined up for Game 5 if Hinch goes with Verlander. Winner-take-all games have their own peculiar dynamic, and if the Rays somehow force the series that far, the pressure on a heavily favored Astros team would be enormous.
First things first: To get back in this series, the Rays must stay in the present in Game 3: If there’s a pitch to be made in the first inning, make that pitch. Think only in terms of one at-bat at a time, one defensive play at a time, etc.
Managers have said things like this to their players for a century, and few things are more difficult than clearing the mind and controlling only the things that are controllable.
The Rays knew what they were facing in Games 1 and 2 when the Astros ran out arguably baseball’s two best starting pitchers in Verlander and Cole. The two were at their best in pitching 14 2/3 shutout innings, striking out 23. The Rays didn’t get a runner as far as second base against a Houston starter until the eighth inning of Game 2.
Tampa Bay stayed close in both the first two games and was a hit away from winning Game 2 in a 3-1 loss. Hope springs eternal, right?
5) A star is born
When the Astros needed a critical hit in a scoreless Game 1, Jose Altuve delivered a two-run home run. In Game 2, it was Alex Bregman homering for an early lead.
Who will it be for the Rays? Despite all the focus on pitching, Tampa Bay was not a dynamic offensive club for most of the regular season, but it was much better in the final month, averaging more than five runs per game.
Outfielder Austin Meadows hit .378 in September, second-highest average among qualifying MLB players. His nine home runs were sixth-most. Yandy Diaz homered twice in the AL Wild Card Game. Tommy Pham is hitting .417 with a home run in three postseason games.
Despite the focus on pitching, the Rays need an offensive hero. Meadows has shown he could be that guy. So could Pham. Or Diaz. Reputations can be made. Entire cities can feed off the joy of doing something no one expected.
The Rays understand this even though they have not been here before. As Cash reminded them, they may not have many moments as special as the one they’ll have on Monday with a roaring crowd behind them and the chance to prove themselves against the best baseball team on the planet.