The Tampa Bay Rays won’t be given much of a chance to beat the Astros in the ALDS, but they have the talent to surprise everyone
The Tampa Bay Rays have heard all of the praise leveled at the Houston Astros: the best pitching staff ever, a lineup full of All-Stars like George Springer and Jose Altuve that should let them waltz into the World Series.
On paper and in the minds of most pundits, the Rays have no chance to beat the Astros when the ALDS begins on Friday. But the Rays, with the lowest payroll in the league, are used to being underestimated and then surprising everyone.
Beating the Astros would be the biggest surprise, but it’s one the Rays can pull off if they play like their capable of. The Rays have their own formidable starting rotation. Tyler Glasnow, who will start Game 1 in Minute Maid Park, was well on his way to an All-Star caliber season, going 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA in March and April and earning AL Pitcher of the Month honors. A forearm injury sidelined him for nearly four months, but he’s picked up right where he left off, giving up just two earned runs in 12.1 innings since his return in early September.
Former Astro Charlie Morton led the Rays with 16 wins and finished third in the AL with a 3.05 ERA, behind only Houston’s dynamic duo of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. He pitched five innings, giving up only one unearned run, in beating the Athletics in the Wild Card game on Wednesday, continuing his stellar postseason record. He earned the win in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS against the Yankees, then came out in relief to pitch the final four innings of the seventh game of the World Series as the Astros clinched their first world championship. He’s now the only pitcher in postseason history with wins in three winner-take-all games.
Then there’s Blake Snell, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner who suffered through an injury-plagued 2019 season. Limited to just 107 innings this season after a career-high 180.2 last year, Snell’s ERA jumped nearly two-and-a-half runs and his win total declined from a league-leading 21 to just six. He’s pitched just five innings since July and enters the ALDS as the biggest question mark: return to his 2018 form, and the Rays stand a chance. If he doesn’t, it will be hard to beat Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke three times.
Verlander and Cole put up numbers for teammates this season that are rarely seen. They were the first teammates to finish first and second in WHIP since Jerry Reuss and Don Sutton with the 1980 Dodgers (Greinke was fifth, making them the first trio on the same team to all finish in the top-five). Verlander’s 0.803 WHIP was the second-lowest since 1920 of any pitcher with at least 150 innings, behind only Pedro Martinez in 2000. His 5.53 hits per nine innings were the fifth-lowest, behind only Nolan Ryan (twice), Luis Tiant and Martinez.
Cole was similarly dominant, becoming only the third starting pitcher in the post-Deadball era to strike out more than 13 batters per nine innings. He led the league with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts, a new Astros franchise record. In early September he became only the second pitcher in history with 14 strikeouts in three consecutive games—again, joining Martinez—and ended the year on a nine-game streak of 10 or more strikeouts, a new Major League record.
It’s difficult to find hitters who have had success against these two, but the Rays actually have some. Tommy Pham is 3-6 in his career against Verlander, while Joey Wendle in 3-8. Against Cole, Pham is 9-18 with a home run while Travis d’Arnaud is a perfect 4-4.
The Rays also managed to get to them already this season. They scored four runs off Cole on Aug. 28, the most the right-hander gave up over his final 13 starts. They touched Greinke for five runs in 5.2 innings the next day, including homers by Austin Meadows and d’Arnaud. The Rays actually won the season series against the Astros, winning four of seven matchups. They played a four-game series at Tropicana Field at the beginning of the year and the Rays took three games, holding Houston to under three runs in each of them. Glasnow started on March 30, going five innings and surrendering one run on six hits. The bullpen pitched four shutout innings as the Rays won that game 3-1.
And that’s where the Rays’ biggest strength lies. Their bullpen led the league this season with a 3.66 ERA. Right-hander Nick Anderson, picked up in a July trade from Miami, gave up just five runs in 21.1 innings in Tampa Bay and pitched 1.1 scoreless innings against Oakland in the Wild Card game. Closer Emilio Pagan surrendered a run in two of his last 13 outings dating back to Aug. 31. Diego Castillo, who is capable of touching 100 m.p.h. on the radar gun, gave up two earned runs in 14.2 innings in September. Add to that Oliver Drake (one run allowed in last 13 innings) and lefty Colin Poche (six consecutive scoreless outings to end the year) and the Rays have an advantage if the games become a matchup of bullpens.
With Glasnow and Snell still working their way back from injuries, don’t expect them to last long into games. That will put pressure on the Rays bullpen to pitch like they have all season long.
They’ve been counted out before, but being the underdog is just where the Rays want to be.