ST. PETERSBURG – Just four days ago, manager Kevin Cash chuckled during his postgame press conference when asked if the Rays showed anything encouraging during a Game 1 loss to the Astros and Justin Verlander in the American League Division Series.
“No,” he said, leaning in close to the mic. “We got Verlander-ed.”
On Tuesday night, the Rays flipped the script on Verlander en route to a 4-1 win at Tropicana Field to even the best-of-five series at two games apiece. Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday night at Minute Maid Park.
The Rays are attempting to become the 11th team in postseason history to advance after falling behind 0-2 in a best-of-five series. In the current 2-2-1 format in the Division Series, of the 47 teams to fall behind 0-2, just seven rallied to force a Game 5. However, after evening the series, five of the seven ended up completing the comeback and winning the series.
“I don’t know if anybody has us getting to Game 4,” said Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “Nobody had us to Game 5. I know we all believe in each other and even showing up to the field, nobody thinks we’re going to lose today. ... We’re ready to shock the world.”
Tommy Pham didn’t waste any time getting the Rays on the board Tuesday. Pham, who came into Tuesday’s game hitting .333 (3-for-9) against Verlander, sent a hanging changeup over the left-center-field wall to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead in the first.
“[Verlander] made some really good pitches on me,” Pham said. “First pitch, curveball. Then he started dumping sliders. And 2-2, he decided to throw a changeup, and I mean, he pitches me tough. I just happened to put a good swing on that pitch.”
Much like Kevin Kiermaier’s three-run home run in Game 3 on Monday, Pham’s solo blast gave the Rays the early momentum in front of another raucous crowd at Tropicana Field. After Pham’s home run, Travis d'Arnaud added an RBI single and Joey Wendle capped off the three-run first inning with an RBI double off Verlander.
In the fourth inning, Willy Adames belted his second home run of the series, a 421-foot solo blast off Verlander to extend Tampa Bay's lead to 4-0. Verlander threw 84 pitches Tuesday and went just 3 2/3 innings, the second-shortest start of his postseason career, with the only one shorter coming in a rain-shortened one-inning start in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS.
Just prior to connecting on his home run, Adames completed a perfect relay with Kiermaier with a strong throw to get José Altuve out at home to end the top half of the fourth. Adames became the first player in Major League postseason history to throw a runner out at home and lead off the next half-inning with a homer.
“I was excited,” Adames said. “That’s a play I always want to make. I always want to try to make the throw. Today, we started with that great throw that [Kiermaier] did to me, and, you know, we were able to get Altuve out, who’s pretty fast.”
Hitting against Verlander has been a struggle for the Rays this season. Austin Meadows hit an Opening Day leadoff home run off the right-hander, and that was the last run Tampa Bay scored off Verlander in 19 1/3 innings, including seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the ALDS.
But on Tuesday, the Rays won the battle. Tampa Bay recorded four batted balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph or more in the first inning, which is tied for the most against Verlander in any inning since Statcast began tracking in 2015. No team achieved the feat over the last two seasons against Verlander.
“He’s still the best. There’s no denying that,” Cash said. “But [four days later], some of those same pitches maybe replayed a little bit and we were able to have some quality at-bats and hit some balls hard.”
With the lead, Cash and the Rays were able to be aggressive as they utilized a bullpen day to outduel Verlander. Diego Castillo opened the game with 1 2/3 dominant innings, Ryan Yarbrough followed with two innings, Nick Anderson provided a career-high 2 1/3 innings, Colin Poche was sharp despite allowing a solo home run to Robinson Chirinos, Emilio Pagán recorded three outs and Blake Snell closed it out with a strikeout against Yordan Alvarez and a groundout against Yuli Gurriel.
“We’ve thrown the ball well all year as a unit. To see guys want the ball in every single situation, it was special to be a part of,” Pagán said. “Guys are just willing to do whatever it takes. And to give ourselves a fighter’s chance in Game 5, we’re a confident team.”
Even after the Game 2 loss, the Rays felt confident they would return to Houston for a decisive Game 5. Adames was so confident that he brought his family from the Dominican Republic for the two games at Tropicana Field.
“Everybody said 3-0 in favor of the Astros,” Adames said. “But they didn’t know we had that dog mentality.”
That same confident group will look to return to Houston and try to get some payback on Gerrit Cole, who struck out 15 Rays batters Saturday in Game 2. Cole and the Astros will remain heavy favorites, but that same confident group believes it can go into Minute Maid Park and “shock the world.”
“All year we’ve been getting talked down,” Pham said. “With the last two games, the way we played, the whole world has seen how good of a team we are and how well-rounded we are.”