It took just one inning to realize that starting Justin Verlander on three days' rest may not have been a wise choice. The 37-year-old righthander, who is a favorite to win this year's Cy Young Award, said he'd never been asked to start on such short notice but thought his arm was ready to try it.
Astros stung again at the Trop
(c) Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
Instead, Verlander gave up three runs in the first inning, left in the fourth after 84 pitches, and took the loss in a 4-1 knockout in St. Pete that knotted the ALDS at two games each, necessitating a decisive Game 5 back in Houston on Thursday night. The winner will face a rested New York Yankee squad on Saturday that swept Minnesota on Monday night.
Verlander gave up a home run to Tommy Pham as just the second batter he faced. He got the second out with two men aboard and could have limited the damage but an RBI single by Travis d'Arnaud and a sharp run-scoring double by Joey Wendle put the Rays up, 3-0, before many of the 32,178 had time to take their first selfie.
Meanwhile, the Houston bats stayed quiet again as six Tampa relievers split up six hits and two walks to tame the Astros' once-potent offense. An eighth-inning solo homer by Robinson Chirinos prevented a shutout but, otherwise, the Spacemen seemed toothless.
Willy Adames took Verlander deep in the fourth for the final Tampa tally but that was all they needed despite 4-1/3rd innings of shutout relief from the maligned Astros bullpen.
Houston had two other chances to dent the scoreboard. In the fourth, Jose Altuve singled and tried to score from first on a double by Yordan Alvarez off the centerfield wall. The throw home was perfect and nipped the sliding Altuve at the plate.
In the ninth, Altuve walked and Alex Bregman singled. Last year's Cy Young winner Blake Snell came in to whiff Alvarez on a breaking pitch in the dirt then retired Yuli Gurriel on a grounder to second to end the final threat.
Suddenly, the 107-win Astros are in danger of leaving the playoffs far ahead of schedule. They will look to 20-game winner Gerrit Cole to turn the tables Thursday night in a place where Houston has won roughly 75% of their games this year. The Rays will have the momentum. Houston will have all the pressure on them.
Tampa will send lefty Tyler Glasnow, who lost to Verlander last Friday in Houston, to the mound on Thursday. He gave up two runs in 4-1/3rd innings then in an eventual 6-2 loss. The Astros had the swagger then which evaporated on the Florida Gulf Coast.
In the final game of the series, all hands are available so the Rays may bring back Snell or Charlie Morton on short rest while the Astros may ask Verlander or Game 3 loser Zack Greinke for an inning of relief. In any case, the Astros must hope that a change of scenery will revive them from their personal torture chamber where they are 9-21 all-time.
This series may end like the 2017 ALCS where the home team won all seven games. For Houston's sake, we hope for a repeat in five.
- Bob Hulsey