HOUSTON -- After two games in which their offense was thoroughly, convincingly and unapologetically shut down by the power pitching of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the Rays are going to face something completely different in a must-win American League Division Series Game 3 on Monday at Tropicana Field.
Alas, “different” won’t be any easier for a Tampa Bay team that so far has only five hits -- and only one for extra bases -- in 14 2/3 innings against Houston starters this series.
With Saturday night’s 3-1 loss in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park in the books and the Rays facing an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-five set (a deficit that only three teams in 30 tries in the 2-2-1 Division Series format have successfully overcome), the attention turns to their approach against right-hander Zack Greinke.
And Greinke is different all right.
“It’s a completely different look,” Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said, “but he can obviously get a lot of outs in a completely different way.”
The soon-to-be-36-year-old Greinke (2.93 ERA, 154 ERA+ in 2019) throws eight different pitches tracked by Statcast -- a four-seamer (40.9 percent of pitches thrown), changeup (21.9), slider (16.1), curveball (14.6), sinker (5.3), eephus (0.9), split-finger (0.2) and cutter (0.1). As his velocity has atrophied (his four-seamer averaged out at 94 mph at the start of the decade and was 89.9 mph this year), he has maintained his stature as one of the great arms in the game by becoming less and less predictable.
“He’s a true student of the game, and he knows how to pitch,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “It seems like everyone out here in baseball these days is throwing 98 or 100. But when you throw low 90s, you’ve got to hit your spots and keep hitters off-balance, and he does a good job of that.”
Greinke’s fastball and changeup come from virtually identical deliveries and actually have similar velocities. But the latter suddenly swoops in on righties and away from lefties as it reaches the plate. His 70 mph curve is a knee-buckler, and the eephus, which averages out at 63.5 mph, bucks all trends. Batters are 0-for-10 on at-bats ending on the eephus.
It goes without saying that the Astros lengthened and strengthened their rotation when they made that last-minute, stunning acquisition of Greinke at the 2019 Trade Deadline. But what they also did was differentiate it. We’re only mildly exaggerating to suggest that Verlander and Cole are identical twins, in terms of their arsenals and their outcomes (ask a 2019 AL Cy Young Award voter, with pulled hair in hand, about the difficulty of deciding between them). They dare you to hit the high, hard one -- and a simple synopsis of Games 1 and 2 is that the Rays didn’t.
Facing Greinke will be totally different and equally difficult all at once.
“Just like Verlander and Cole, he studies,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He knows the game of baseball. He knows his strengths, and he has a plan that he's going to try and execute every time he takes the mound. We love playing behind him.”
Whereas Verlander and Cole routinely attack the zone and dare you to hit their dazzling stuff, Greinke is more apt to keep it low and off the edges and tempt you to chase. According to FanGraphs, only 12 qualified pitchers got a higher percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone (35.2 percent), and, according to Statcast, no pitcher induced a lower opponents’ weighted on-base average (.193) on pitches outside the strike zone.
The Rays had the 11th-lowest team wOBA (.288) in MLB on pitches outside the zone. More specifically, on pitches in the lower-third and below the zone, they had a .281 wOBA that was the seventh lowest in MLB.
In other words, while the Rays had success against Greinke as recently as Aug. 29 (when they roughed him up for five runs on six hits over 5 2/3 innings in a 9-8 victory), they certainly have their work cut out for them here. Greinke’s deep repertoire prevents him from getting locked into too many predictable patterns, so the Rays will have to be ready for his adjustments and assuredly make some of their own.
For a team with its back against the wall, this is both a suboptimal scenario and a true test of postseason pedigree. After getting “Verlander’d” and “Cole’d” in consecutive nights, the Rays can’t afford to get “Greinke’d.” They, too, need to offer something different.
“Just have a good approach,” Rays outfielder Austin Meadows said. “Don’t be too overaggressive and get yourself out. Just have a good plan of attack.”