Tampa Bay Rays

Wait, can the Rays actually pull off the upset vs. the Astros?

After winning the last two games, the Rays have forced a Game 5 in the ALDS vs. the Astros, but can they seal the deal and pull off the upset?

Back on Saturday, after Gerrit Cole had finished off striking out 15 Rays batters in a 3-1 victory, the Astros wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the next time they played at home would be for the opening game of the ALCS.

But things have changed the past two days, and the upstart Rays are heading into Game 5 on Thursday full of confidence they can shock the baseball world and knock off the mighty Astros. Down two games to none after two dominating pitching performances from Justin Verlander and Cole, the Rays have rallied to beat Zack Greinke in Game 3 and Verlander on Tuesday to force a fifth and deciding game.

Verlander shut down the Rays in Game 1 and held them to only one hit, but, pitching on short rest in Game 4, the Rays ambushed him right away. Tommy Pham hit a home run in the first inning, Travis d’Arnaud and Joey Wendle collected RBIs and by the time Verlander got out of the inning he and the Astros were facing a 3-0 deficit. The Rays added a home run by Willy Adames in the fourth on their way to a 4-1 win at Tropicana Field.

Now that the series is shifting back to Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the Rays are suddenly back in it and in prime position to advance to a date with the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Sure, Cole is waiting for them in Game 5. In his first start in this series, Cole held the Rays to four hits and kept them off the scoreboard for nearly eight innings. His 15 strikeouts were the third-most in postseason history. Cole led the league with 326 strikeouts during the regular season, the most by a right-handed pitcher in more than forty years, and 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings, a new MLB record.

But the Rays have their own stars on the mound, and all arms will be available in Game 5. Tyler Glasnow will get his second start of the series after going 4.2 innings in Game 1. The only blemish on his record was a two-run home run by Jose Altuve in the fifth inning.

It now seems like a long time ago, but Glasnow was the best pitcher in baseball for the first six weeks of the season. In his first seven starts, he went 6-0 and gave up less than a run-and-a-half per game on his way to winning AL Pitcher of the Month honors for March/April. A forearm injury robbed him of four months of the season, but he still finished with a 6-1 record and a 1.78 ERA, nearly a half-run lower than any other pitcher who made at least 10 starts.

The Rays bullpen will be well-rested should Glasnow need relief. Manager Kevin Cash went to an opener, Diego Castillo, in Game 4, and his game plan worked to perfection. Not one of the six pitchers the Rays used threw more than 30 pitches. They combined to hold the Astros lineup to six hits on Tuesday and off the scoreboard until a solo homer by Robinson Chirinos in the eighth. The Rays had the best bullpen ERA in baseball during the regular and got more innings from their relievers than any other team.

Tampa’s bullpen is so deep that they were able to call in Blake Snell, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, to get the final two outs on Tuesday. They held the Astros to just four runs in the two games at home. The Rays lineup, meanwhile, went off on Greinke and Verlander, scoring 10 runs off the two former Cy Young winners. Pham has four hits in the past two games, Avisail Garcia five. They hit four home runs in Game 4, tying the postseason franchise record, and added another two on Tuesday.

Eight teams in the division series era have come back from an 0-2 deficit to win the series, most recently the 2017 Yankees. The Rays, with the lowest payroll in baseball—$104 million less than the Astros—shouldn’t be competitive with Houston. Through two games they weren’t. But the Rays, who have fought and scratched their way all season long, are back in and not ready to end this party just yet.

Next: How worried should the Astros be in Game 5?

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