The Tampa Bay Rays are a scrappy team and showed that despite a lack of name recognition, they are in fact a good team in their AL Wild Card win over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday. Now, they’ll get an even bigger test in a five-game set against the Houston Astros, the favorites to win the World Series. Can Tampa Bay pull out another surprise victory or will this be the end of the road for this perennial underdog?
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ALDS Preview Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros
- Date and Time: Game 1 slated for Friday, October 4, 2019 at 2:05 p.m. ET
- Location: Minute Maid Park and Tropicana Field
- 2019 MLB Betting Odds at Betcris: (Check Back Later)
- Rays vs. Astros 2019 MLB TV Coverage: FS1 and MLB Network
When it comes to starting pitching, no team can match up with the dominant top-3 starters of the Astros.
Houston will start with Justin Verlander in Game 1 and turn to Gerrit Cole in Game 2 before giving the ball to Zack Greinke to start the first game at Tropicana Field, Game 3. That’s three aces.
Verlander was instrumental for the Astros in their previous World Series run and is a career 3.19 ERA pitcher in 25 postseason games. He’s also 7-0 with a 2.38 ERA in 11 games in ALDS play.
The 36-year old right-hander is getting up there in age for a Major Leaguer but continues to dominate. He’s the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award, again, this season alongside his teammate, Cole. On the year, he amassed 7.8 WAR and went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and 0.803 WHIP in 223 innings of work, providing both quality and quantity.
In his final game of the season, the hurler notched both his 300th strikeout of the season, a career high, and his 3,000th career strikeout.
The future Hall-of-Famer is as reliable as they come on the mound and proven in October. He’s also coming into this one having pitched well down the stretch.
Verlander faced the Rays twice this MLB season, once in late August, going 5.1 innings of scoreless ball, giving up four hits and once in April, going seven innings, allowing just one run on a solo homer.
While Verlander provides the Rays’ offense with a huge challenge, it doesn’t get easier in Game 2. Another flamethrower, Cole led the league in strikeouts with 326 while going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 0.895 WHIP in his 212.1 innings. Both his 185 ERA+ and his 2.64 FIP top Verlander.
The 28-year old is on track for a big payday when he hits free agency after this postseason, but with a good showing in October can add on a couple additional million to the final total. The ERA and FIP leader in the AL, Cole—like Verlander—continues to go strong despite many innings. He’s allowed one run or less in five of his last six starts, giving up just two runs in eight innings in the lone exception. He’s pitched to a 5-0 record and 1.07 ERA in that time, tossing 42 innings.
While that is positive, there is one glimmer of hope for the Rays. Tampa Bay has faced Cole twice this year and scored four runs against him in both games.
Greinke offers a slightly different look than the power pitchers of Verlander and Cole when this series heads to Tropicana Field for Game 3.
A blockbuster midseason acquisition, Greinke came over from Arizona and produced without missing a beat. He went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.069 WHIP in his 10 starts for the Astros. Overall, he finished his season going 18-5 with a 2.93 ERA and 0.982 WHIP in 208.2 innings.
Like Verlander, Greinke offers quite a bit of postseason experience, though his last appearance in October wasn’t great as he allowed seven runs in 8.2 innings spread between the NL Wild Card Game and NLDS back in 2017 for Arizona.
Nevertheless, he’s coming off an epic performance in his regular season finale, getting into the ninth inning with a no hitter. He ended up giving up a pair of hits but going 8.1 scoreless innings.
For as good as Greinke is, he did struggle in his only start against the Rays this year, going 5.2 innings and allowing five runs, his worst start as an Astro.
Verlander will likely go in Game 5 if this series gets there with Cole and Greinke both available in relief if needed, but should a fourth starter be needed, that could be either Wade Miley or Jose Urquidy. If Miley, look for a very short leash. The southpaw had a nice season going 14-6 with a 3.98 ERA. He went an inning or less in three of his last five starts and posted a dismal 16.68 ERA in September.
Urquidy is the better option and would probably be available to eat innings behind Miley if the veteran gets the nod.
The rookie right-hander has made nine appearances—including seven starts—this year, going 2-1 with a 3.95 ERA and 1.098 WHIP while showing above-average command and good poise for a 24-year old.
He hasn’t been given a long leash himself but has allowed no more than a single run in any of his last four games.
On the other side of his matchup, the Rays will counter the strong Houston rotation with some interesting starters of their own including former Astros’ hurler Charlie Morton. Morton pitched in the AL Wild Card game so won’t get another chance until Game 3 opposite Greinke. In the first two games, the Rays are expected to turn to Tyler Glasnow and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.
In the fourth game of the series, the Rays could go with an opener. After all, this is the team that started that trend. Yonny Chirinos is another option and could start or give innings after an opener. He’s 9-5 with a 3.85 ERA and 1.050 WHIP in 133.1 innings, the 25-year old right-hander, however missed most of August and September and would be limited in his innings. He hasn’t thrown more than 38-pitches in an outing since August 4.
Ryan Yarbrough is another option. Starting half of his 28 games, Yarbrough totaled 141.2 innings, second most on the team, and was 11-6 with a 4.13 ERA and 0.995 WHIP. Those are some quietly impressive number, but he is coming off three straight losses, including two games where he allowed six runs each. He did give up just three in five innings in his last start, however.
Before the Rays worry too much about the Game 4 starter, however, they’ll need to get there which means at least one of Glasnow, Snell or Morton will need to get the win.
Glasnow is an interesting choice to start the opener. The young right-hander spent four months on the IL and has made just four starts since coming off, all limited. While he has had a short leash to ramp up, he’s looked good in those starts. In fact, he’s delivered whenever he’s been on the bump this year, going 6-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 60.2 innings.
In the 26-year old righty, the Rays are going with quality over quantity as his longest outing since coming off the IL has been 4.1 innings and 66 pitches. He’ll likely be allowed to go a bit beyond that if throwing well but won’t be in the game much through five regardless of how well it is going. Nevertheless, he’s a good bet to get you to the middle innings with some success. He’s allowed just four hits and three walks over his last three starts, totaling 10.1 innings. He hasn’t allowed a single run in that time.
Against Houston to start the season, Glasnow went five innings, allowing one run on six hits—including a solo bomb. He struck out four and walked one in the effort, throwing 77 pitches. Kevin Cash would be ecstatic if he could give a similar performance on Friday.
As for Blake Snell, he’s had an up-and-down year riddled with some struggles, freak injuries and bizarre storylines. He couldn’t come close to the 21-5 record and 1.89 ERA that he posted last year but has shown flashes.
In 2018, he had a 2.94 FIP in that epic season. His FIP here in 2019 is just a bit higher at 3.32 despite an ERA of 4.29. He isn’t throwing the ball all that differently. He’s still a strikeout machine with 12.4 per nine innings and his walk rate is relatively the same. The biggest difference is the BABIP against him.
Snell, like Glasnow, is freshly off the IL. He’s made three starts after going on the IL in July. Before his stint on the IL, Snell looked to be putting it all together. The right-hander has thrown 62 pitches as his max in the last three starts but hasn’t gone more than 2.1 innings in any of them.
Morton is really the team’s most reliable starter. He remade himself as a member of the Astros the last two seasons and carried that into this season in Tampa where he finished 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 1.084 WHIP in 194.2 innings pitched, the most his 12-year career.
The veteran right-hander had a 2.81 FIP thanks to a 4.21 K:BB ratio and just 15 homers allowed on the year. He’s kept the ball in the yard, something that’ll come in handy against a very good—and powerful—Astros’ lineup.
Morton was okay against the Astros in a start back in April but struggled against them on August 27 when he went back to Houston for the start. He lasted just four innings and allowed six runs in that outing. Fortunately for him, he’ll get a chance at redemption but is in line to make the start at home where he has a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts this season and a win over the Astros.
It’s clear the Astros have the edge in the starting rotation, particularly when it comes to length. With nether Glasnow or Snell likely to go beyond four or five innings at most, Tampa Bay’s bullpen will have to play a big role if they’re to make some noise in this series.
The Ray’s pen pitched four scoreless innings and raked up eight strikeouts against the A’s in the Wild Card game and finished the regular season with the best ERA in the sport at 3.66. Houston was a couple spots behind at 3.75.
While the Rays don’t have the big names in the pen, they have a lot of quality pieces and Kevin Cash has shown he is a master at maneuvering is pitching staff and putting guys in the best position to succeed, including Emilio Pagan who emerged as the team’s closer with a 2.31 ERA. He’s been particularly brilliant against right-handed hitters who have a .193 cumulative OBP against him.
Like the 28-year old Pagan, the Rays have found other answers is various places, playing on the strengths of their pitchers. Diego Castillo, Oliver Drake, Hunter Wood and others are all thriving in their roles while Nick Anderson may be the filthiest pitcher on the roster.
Anderson was a midseason addition for Tampa Bay and is the not-so-secret weapon out of the pen that Cash can call on when he needs a big strikeout. The 28-year old journeyman notched 41 strikeouts in 21.1 innings for the Rays this year. He faced five batters in the Wild Card game, allowed one hit and struck out four of them.
The Rays probably get the edge in the bullpen and they certainly have the better length, but Houston’s pen is impressive, too; far better than the one A.J. Hinch managed to get the World Series title back in 2017.
Roberto Osuna is a very dependable closer. He ended the year with a 2.63 ERA and 0.877 WHIP while notching 38 saves though he did give up eight homers.
Ryan Pressly and Will Harris meanwhile form a great tandem to set up Osuna. Midseason, Pressly was basically unhittable. He’s been a bit less invincible down the stretch, but still has a 2.32 ERA. Harris has a 1.40 ERA and both have a WHIP below one.
With Verlander, Cole and Greinke, it’s not likely the Houston bullpen will be tested too much with depth—a battle it would lose against the Rays—but the top three arms are elite in the Houston pen and others like Hector Rondon give the team some options.
The Astros were one of four teams to end the season having scored at least 900 runs, plating 920 and posting an MLB best .848 team OPS. In the second half, Houston led baseball with 462 runs scored and had a .887 cumulative OPS.
Alex Bregman is in the race for MVP after a .296/.423/.592 slash line and 41 homers to go with his 112 RBI, but he doesn’t even have the best slash line or OPS+ on the team, that belongs to Yordan Alvarez who figures to go home with the Rookie of the Year award. In 87 games, he’s hit 27 homers, driven in 79 and has a 1.067 OPS.
Carlos Correa is expected back in time for this series which slides Bregman back to third base and gives the Astros eight regulars with an OPS+ of at least 105 and seven with an OPS+ of 126 or better. There are four players with at least 31 home runs and an entire lineup, save one outfield spot, that has an OBP of at least .343.
Basically, this team is stacked and looks like it’s getting healthy at the right time.
While the Astros have one of the most elite offenses in recent memory, the Rays ranked in the middle of the pack on the season in most offensive categories. They get the job done but lack the big name boopers like Bregman and Springer. They also lack the gaudy numbers. Instead, they manage to score enough while piecing together the pitching and getting wins as a complete team.
Tampa Bay showed just that in the Wild Card game where Yandy Diaz came off the IL to hit a pair of big homers and lead the team. Travis d’Arnaud, a cast-off of the Mets, was picked up and hit clean up on Wednesday night.
This lineup is made up of spare parts and good-but-not-great players that mesh well and compliment each other.
Austin Meadow’s has the sexiest line going .291/.364/.558 with 33 home runs and 89 RBI, but that type of season would rank him as the fourth or fifth best offensive piece in Houston.
The Rays will need a few hitters to step up and have big series to have a chance. Tommy Pham is an option. Brandon Lowe, Ji-Man Choi, and Avisail Garcia have all had nice seasons as well.
This is truly a team with so many moving parts and no set lineup. Kevin Cash has been a mastermind at playing the matchups and will continue to do so in this series.
Odds Analysis and Recent Trends
Houston is a huge favorite in this MLB season baseball series and for good reason. They’ve got a clear edge in the rotation and an incredibly dangerous offense. Meanwhile, their bullpen is strong, too. Really, it’s hard to pinpoint a weakness.
On paper, the Rays just don’t stack up, but it’s a short series and anything can happen. Besides, the Rays did win four of seven in the season series between these two teams this year, including taking three of four at home to open the year.
Both teams played well in September and come into October hot. The Rays did lose their last two regular season games but have built momentum with their dominating Wild Card performance. That could help them particularly considering it will be nearly a week since the Astros played a game, leaving them open to potentially being a bit rusty.
The Astros, however, did go 12-2 in their last 14 games.
The Astros are the better team no matter how you look at it. Tampa Bay has the slightly better bullpen and a group in the pen that can provide more innings, but they’ll need to give more innings as the Houston rotation—potentially save for the fourth spot—should go deep in games.
Cole and Greinke struggled a bit in contests against the Rays this season. Look for Tampa Bay to find a way to steal one game, but that is likely it even with the No.4 starter questions for Houston.
This Astros’ lineup is historically deep and the pitching—both in the rotation and the back of the pen—are likely too much for the Rays’ offense to handle.
Tampa Bay is a scrappy team and one that constantly surprises and overachieves. There is a way that the Rays could win this series, but it’s extremely unlikely. The Astros are just too good and seem destined to move on to the ALCS.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros Series Pick: Anything can happen in the playoffs, but a Houston vs. New York ALCS seems inevitable. Take the Astros in this one.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros Series Prediction: Astros in Four