Cole Produces 15-K Gem; Astros Up, 2-0

Cole: Still unbeaten since May
(c) Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
The clock almost struck midnight on the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night. Fitting.

The A.L. East upstarts are down to their last gasp as they slowly suffocated in the hands of Gerrit Cole and two relievers to lose in Houston, 3-1, and fall behind 2-0 in their best-of-five series. To survive, the Rays must now sweep the next three games or practice their golf swings.

Cole fanned 15 Rays and lasted 7-2/3rd innings before bowing out after compiling 118 pitches. While Cole is a horse who can probably laugh at pitch counts, he could be needed for a Game 5 on Thursday should Houston's fortunes turn for the worse.

Unlike Justin Verlander who breezed through seven innings on Friday, Cole had to wriggle out of spots to maintain his shutout but he had that heater when he really needed it to keep Tampa bats flailing.

For most of the game, the only run on the board was a solo homer from Alex Bregman in the fourth off Blake Snell that nestled into the upper seats of the Crawford Boxes for a 1-0 lead. Houston added a run in the seventh when Martin Maldonado dumped a single to left that plated Yuli Gurriel from third. So uncertain was Gurriel that he hugged third base for a tag up and then had to slide past the throw home for the game's second run.

Carlos Correa, who along with Bregman and Maldonado had two-hit nights, poked a single to right center in the eighth to score Bregman for an insurance run that was almost needed.

Things got tense in the top of the eighth when Kevin Keirmaier launched a two-out double to right and then Cole walked Willy Adames. In came closer Roberto Osuna to strike out Yandy Diaz to end the threat.

Osuna, however, allowed singles to Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham to start the ninth then he uncorked a wild pitch and walked Ji-Man Choi to fill the bases with nobody out. Avisail Garcia bounced to third which drove in a run and was almost a double play but Garcia beat Jose Altuve's relay throw from second base.

Brandon Lowe walked and the sacks were still full with one out. In came Will Harris to relieve Osuna and, for the second day in a row, got the critical outs the Astros needed. Harris whiffed Travis d'Arnaud then covered first on Kiermaier's hopper, taking Gurriel's flip for the game's final out.

Billy Wagner, who was on hand to throw out the first pitch, was probably being asked if he could suit up the way the Houston bullpen was adding drama to the late innings. Give credit to the Rays who have spent all year scrapping until the very last out.

Zack Greinke (18-5 and 8-1 as an Astro) will get the first chance to knock out the Rays Monday in a 12:05 pm Central start at Tropicana Field. Ex-Astro Charlie Morton (16-6) will get the start for Tampa after working five innings in the Wild Card game. If the Rays don't die, Verlander is likely to return for a Tuesday start in Game 4 on three days rest.

Kyle Tucker started in right field for Houston and finished 0-for-3 with a walk. He and Maldonado were the only changes to the batting order from Friday's opener. A full house of 43,378 saw the Saturday contest which almost carried into Sunday. If it was exhausting for Houston fans, imagine how rough it was for Floridians who stayed up until almost 1 a.m. only to be let down again.

- Bob Hulsey