Justin Verlander took the mound at Tropicana Field on three days rest hoping to end the series against the Rays. It didn’t work out so well
The Houston Astros rode the right arms of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to 107 wins in the regular season, so they weren’t about to stop in the playoffs. Even though Verlander had started Game 1 of the ALDS just four days earlier, manager A.J. Hinch made the decision to start him in Game 4 on short rest in an attempt to put away the Tampa Bay Rays and advance to face the Yankees in the ALCS.
It’s a move easily understood, maybe even the only one Hinch had. Who else was going to make the start in such a pivotal game, rookie Jose Urquidy? But it didn’t turn out as the Astros had hoped.
Verlander got Austin Meadows to strike out leading off the bottom of the first at Tropicana Field. So far so good. Then the floodgates opened for the Rays offense. Tommy Pham hit a home run to left field, only the third homer Verlander had allowed in the first inning over 25 previous postseason starts. Ji-Man Choi then drew a walk, followed by a single by Avisal Garcia.
Travis d’Arnaud then fit the ball just out of the reach of third baseman Alex Bregman, driving in Choi with an RBI single. The next batter, Joey Wendle, doubled down the right-field line to score Garcia and put the Rays up 3-0 after Verlander had recorded just two outs. He finally got out of the inning by striking out Kevin Kiermaier, but not before the damage had been done.
Not having his normal rest clearly affected Verlander’s stuff. He had given up three runs in the first inning just once all season (June 18 to the Reds), and 12 all season. He had surrendered three runs in a game only three times since the All-Star break. The four hits the Rays got in the inning matched his season-high, set on July 14 against the Rangers.
Verlander fell behind eight of the 13 batters he faced through the first two innings. He showed a surprising inability to put away hitters. Pham fouled off three straight pitches in the second inning before hitting a single. Choi walked for the second time after Verlander got him to two strikes. Brandon Lowe, the only Rays hitter to get a hit of Verlander in Game 1, doubled to lead off the third off a hanging slider that lacked Verlander’s usual late break. He was already at 58 pitches by the end of the second inning; in Game 1, he didn’t reach 58 until the fifth inning.
For how dominant Verlander was back in Game 1—seven innings pitched, one hit, no runs and eight strikeouts—the Rays had him figured out on Tuesday. He had started on short rest just once in his career, in Game 3 of the 2011 ALDS. On that night he went eight innings, giving up four runs on six hits while striking out 11 in a game the Tigers went on to win 5-4. But that start comes with an asterisk: he had thrown only one inning in Game 1 of that series before the game was suspended due to rain. So Tuesday’s game was the first time he had ever pitched on less than regular rest after going deep into his previous game. In the past 20 postseasons, teams starting a pitcher on short rest had gone just 50-56.
Verlander was finally removed with two outs in the fourth inning after serving up a home run to Willy Adames to make it 4-0 Rays. It’s the shortest start of his postseason career since that ALDS game against the Yankees eight years ago and only the second where he failed to go past the fourth. Verlander failed to go four innings as a member of the Astros only one other start on Aug. 9, 2018, against the Mariners.
Should the Rays force the series back to Houston on Thursday, the Astros will have Cole waiting after the right-hander had one of the most dominant pitching performances in postseason history in Game 2. But the Rays already showed they could figure out one of the Astros aces. Why can’t they do it again?