ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Whatever metaphor, analogy or parable you might look up, isn’t it always the giant who falls? Does this have anything to do with what transpired the last two days at Tropicana Field? Or are we seeing the tech-infused Tampa Bay Rays crowd-sourcing their way around the considerable problem of dispatching of the star-laden Houston Astros?
After the Rays’ 4-1 win in Game 4 of their American League Division Series on Tuesday, a game that began with 2019 Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander on the mound for Houston and ended with 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell polishing off his first-ever save, everything feels like it is on the table.
“We made it this far,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “It’s pretty safe to say, but we’re not content with this. We want to win one more and keep this thing going. We plan on doing just that.”
The ogre in this baseball parable, at least on Tuesday, would be Verlander, who may not be the biggest pitcher in baseball in terms of stature, though at 6 foot 5, 225 pounds, he’s a load. More so, he’s a giant by reputation and by accomplishment. In a few weeks when the pending retirement of New York’s CC Sabathia becomes official, Verlander will become baseball’s active leader in wins and strikeouts. He is Gulliver to the Rays’ Lilliputians. He is Goliath to the Rays’ David. He is South Bend Central to the Rays’ Hickory High.
You get the idea.
With Verlander on the hill, the Rays countered with … no one. OK, that’s not precisely true. They had Diego Castillo on the mound and he fired thunderbolts with even more ferocity than Verlander, but just not for as many innings. Castillo is an opener, that Rays innovation, one they believe in so deeply that they trotted it out in a game they had to win to extend their season. Castillo electrified a rocking, hanky-waving crowd at the Trop by striking out Michael Brantley, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman in order in the first inning.
“Castillo, thank God he was an opener and not a regular starter,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Having him out there for four, five, six innings would be devastating for anybody.”
Well, Castillo was only out there for seven batters because he’s an opener and that’s how this thing works. From there, Rays skipper Kevin Cash summoned lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who soft-tossed his way to two scoreless innings after Castillo. The last batter he faced was rookie Yordan Alvarez. Yarbrough threw him three straight curves that topped out at 72 mph, and followed that with a change-up — at 78. Alvarez then cracked a double off the wall violently, perhaps angered by the audacity of it all.
Then it fell to Nick Anderson, the out-of-nowhere reliever who began the season on the other side of Florida with the Marlins but has emerged as a lock-down reliever who throws a vicious curve of his own, along with upper-90s heat. He, like Castillo and Yarbrough also got seven batters. Colin Poche got six hitters; Emilio Pagan got four, taking it into the ninth inning but leaving runners on the corners with the dangerous Alvarez at the plate.
So the Rays being the Rays, in came Snell for his 100th career appearance, including the postseason. The first 99 were as a starting pitcher. As good and different as the curveballs of Yarbrough and Anderson are, Snell’s hook may be baseball’s best. And he used one to strike out Alvarez before getting Yuli Gurriel on a well-struck grounder to end it. Snell, in his first-ever relief appearance, had his first-ever save.
“We didn’t draw it up that way,” Cash said. “As soon as Alvarez came up with a chance to tie the game, we felt that that was our best matchup. We were fairly confident that Blake was going to be pretty amped up. He was.”
That, too, is the Rays. It doesn’t just take a village, it takes a village in which everyone does more than one job and may be asked to do just about anything at any time. Everyone knows this, especially Hinch.
“It’s October, I’m not surprised by anything,” Hinch said. “There’s no real hidden tricks when you’re faced with elimination. They used a lot of resources. We knew they would.”
Of course. The Rays always use a lot of resources. They used 57 batters during the regular season; Houston used 45. The Rays deployed 33 pitchers; Houston used 26. The Rays had only four players compile as many as three wins above replacement during the regular season. Houston had that many studs surpass six WAR. Somehow or another though, it all seems to be coming out even.
“People mentioned David and Goliath to me and some of the other guys before this series and I just had to cut ’em off before they even went on with that,” an indignant Kiermaier said. “Because I don’t want to hear that. I know Houston is probably better on paper and all that, but anything can happen when you step on the field at the same time.”
Here’s something Kiermaier might approve of: While Verlander and Gerrit Cole were dominant in their initial starts, the Rays have dominated the series beyond the Verlander/Cole innings in Houston. With those two on the mound, the Astros outscored the Rays 8-0, enough to take the first two games of the series. But beyond that, in all the other innings of series including Game 4, the Rays have outscored Houston 17-5.
The numbers all swing the Rays’ way. Tampa Bay has a 10-4 edge in homers in the series. They have that 17-13 edge in scoring. They have more walks, a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage. The Astros have been outplayed.
Tommy Pham describes what it was like to start the Rays’ scoring in Game 4 of the ALDS and how that helps Tampa Bay’s pitchers.
“Hey, I hate to say it, [but] about time, you know,” said Tommy Pham, who got the Rays started with a solo homer off Verlander in the first. “Because we have a really good team over here. And to win 96 games in this division with New York and Boston is an impressive feat. And all year, we’ve been getting talked down. And now, 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.”
They’ve seen how good the Rays are, but they still might not know who they are. There are just so many of them. Avisail Garcia and Ji-Man Choi both reached base four times in Game 4. Willy Adames homered, swung a hot bat in both games the Rays won, and threw a laser bolt on a relay throw in the fourth to gun down Altuve at the plate.
Everybody contributed it seemed. Even the Rays’ bullpen was a hive of activity, with relievers constantly warming up, sitting down or, often, entering the game. Every pitcher on the roster either pitched or warmed up at some point Tuesday except for Game 3 starter Charlie Morton — who may well be called on for a couple of innings in Game 5 — and the scheduled starter for Thursday’s contest, Tyler Glasnow.
“Their pitching is exceptional,” Hinch said. “What they did on the mound tonight was incredible. They’re not just throwing different arms at you. You talk about the opener, they’ll throw a lot of different arms and get platoon advantages. That’s not neglected. Their stuff is really good. They’re throwing elite guys.”
The baseball world is seeing this but, come on, this is the Astros, who won 107 games during the season with a plus-280 run differential that ranks as the 10th best in history. Surely the star power that fuels Houston will manifest itself, right? It better, and fast.
To borrow a football saying, the Astros are now off schedule. They didn’t really want to use Verlander on short rest, something he’d never done in back-to-back starts. But the fourth rotation slot has been problematic because of Wade Miley‘s late-season slide. Rookie Jose Urquidy was an option, but he’s a rookie. (He pitched in relief in Game 4.)
“We would have gone with Urquidy and if he would have [struggled], it would have been, ‘Should you have put a rookie in that situation?'” Hinch said. “I understand with the results, it’s tough. It was my decision to put [Verlander] out there. I felt it was the best chance to win the series — JV today and Gerrit in Game 5 if we needed it. We’re going to test the latter part of that in Game 5.”
On Thursday, the Rays once again will be battling a giant. Cole has not lost a start since May 22. He struck out 326 batters this season. But just as the Rays had some familiarity with seeing Verlander a few days ago, they will have that with Cole too.
“That [was] the second time we faced him this year, so now everyone has multiple at-bats against him to kind of see what he likes to do to us,” Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “But the guy is a great pitcher. He’s under 2.50 ERA, over 300 strikeouts, so it’s gonna be a battle for sure.”
As Hinch said, the Rays used a lot of resources in Game 4 but Wednesday is a travel day, so Cash should have everyone available on Thursday. Familiarity with his hurlers isn’t much of an issue — on Tuesday, no Astros hitter saw the same Rays pitcher twice. The Astros have witnessed that the Rays are not going to be overwhelmed by the status of their All-Star roster. And while that might be a revelation to many, Houston knew what they were encountering, confident as they were and as they remain.
“This team, these guys, even after going up two games against this ballclub, I don’t think we took anything for granted,” Verlander said. “I know I didn’t. I can’t speak for everybody, but that was the mentality. We know how talented these guys are and we knew it would be a battle. Obviously we were hoping to win yesterday, hoping to win today. We’ve had our backs against the wall before and come out victorious. Hopefully this is an opportunity to go prove ourselves.”
And for a proof of the concept to which Verlander refers — that has the Astros as a championship team — having Cole going at home in front of fans just as raucous, waving orange hankies instead of yellow, is not a bad fail-safe option.
“He’s been on one of the most incredible runs I’ve ever seen,” Verlander said of Cole. “That the baseball world has ever seen. If you could name a starting pitcher in all of major league baseball, you’d want him on the mound.”
For the Astros, it is about him. For the Rays, it’ll be about them. After two sultry days under the white roof of the Trop, it’s hard to say which pronoun will prevail. We only know with the Rays, expect the unexpected.
“I’m not going to be surprised if Charlie Morton is available in Game 5,” Hinch said. “I’m not going to be surprised if Blake Snell is available in Game 5. I wouldn’t expect anything less out of this type of game.”
Neither does Snell.
“That’s what we do,” Snell said. “We make every game tough. We got two wins now, but now we’ve got to see what we really can do in going to Houston and taking it from them.”