After beating the A's in the AL Wild Card Game, the Rays will remain on the road now and head to Houston for the best-of-five AL Division Series. The Astros outscored the Rays 40-27 in the regular season series, though the Rays went 4-3 in seven games. That really doesn't matter for the purposes of this series, especially since the Rays took three of four all the way back in March to open the season.
Let's talk about six things that do matter, shall we?
1. What will Astros do if they need a fourth starter?
Zack Greinke just completed a season in which he was 18-5 with a 2.93 ERA (154 ERA+), 0.98 WHIP and 187 strikeouts against 28 unintentional walks in 208 2/3 innings. He's the Astros' third starter.
Gerrit Cole went 20-5 with an AL-best 2.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and an MLB-best 326 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings this season. He might win the Cy Young. He gets tasked with Game 2 and it's not even a bad decision.
That's because if Cole doesn't win the Cy Young, it'll be Justin Verlander, who is the Astros' Game 1 starter.
Only the Nationals can rival such a Big Three and I'd argue even they are inferior here.
For Game 4, there is a Grand Canyon-like drop off. All signs point to lefty Wade Miley, who looked like he'd make a quality fourth starter much of the year but completely fell apart. In three of his five September starts, he didn't even record more than three outs. In the month, he allowed 21 runs on 28 hits in 11 1/3 innings. He allowed opposing hitters to slash .467/.522/.683.
It's possible the Astros go with a bullpen game instead of Miley. That might be the best route, because they do have a deep bullpen it's possible their big three goes deep enough in the other games to soften the bullpen workload.
2. Rays underrated pitching
We'll delve more into this in a second, but while the Astros have the names, the Rays aren't hurting for talent.
Tyler Glasnow gets the ball in Game 1 and he had a 1.78 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 12 starts this season. Injury derailed him, but he worked his way back up to 66 pitches on Sept. 27.
Blake Snell goes in Game 2 and while he's in a down year, he won the Cy Young with a 1.89 ERA last season. He was hurt for a while, too, but the talent is there. We've seen it before.
Charlie Morton goes in Game 3 and he's in the mix to finish third behind the Astros' duo for Cy Young. We saw what he can do in the wild card game.
They could go with Ryan Yarbrough or an opener in front of him in Game 4. He hasn't been as good down the stretch, but he's been excellent at times. From June 18-Aug. 17, he was 6-0 with a 1.43 ERA and 54 strikeouts against four walks in 56 2/3 innings.
Behind the rotation is a stable of power bullpen arms that helped the Rays finish third in the AL in strikeouts despite having just one pitcher with 150-plus. If you haven't seen them much, you'll soon familiarize yourselves with the likes of Nick Anderson, Emilio Pagan, Diego Castillo and Colin Poche.
3. Star power and salary imbalance
The playoffs are a time when we get an influx of casual fans watching teams they haven't seen much in the regular season. Those fans are going to see an awful lot of Astros they've grown familiar with these past several years of postseason and All-Star Games. They roll off the tongue with ease: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Verlander, Cole, Greinke. A new addition some might not know but really should is Yordan Alvarez.
On the other hand, the Rays have a scrappy group of players to casual fans. By no means should that be taken as an insult. I mentioned the talented pitching staff. Then there is Austin Meadows. Tommy Pham. Yandy Diaz. Brandon Lowe. Kevin Kiermaier's defensive chops. The Rays have plenty of talent, it's just the non-household name variety.
It shows in the salary gap. The Astros opened the season eighth in baseball at $165 million and change (keep in mind picking up salary in Greinke at the trade deadline). The Rays were dead last at $53.5 million, a good $15 million behind the 29th-ranked Marlins.
This is truly a battle of opposites.
4. Home/road split imbalance
If you think home-field advantage for the Astros matters, you can look at the Astros' home-road splits.
- Home: 60-21
- Road: 47-34
That is a ridiculous home record. The Astros are basically the equivalent of the best team of all time at home.
If you want to make the case it doesn't matter, though, look at the Rays.
- Home: 48-33
- Road: 48-33
Only the Twins have been better on the road this season than the Rays.
Of course, the other way to twist this is the Astros were only one game worse on the road than the Rays and the Rays aren't exceptional at home.
Do what you will with the numbers here.
5. Astros are bringing the firepower
The Rays have excellent pitching and they're gonna need it. The Astros led the AL in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks and struck out the fewest. They were third in runs, second in doubles and third in home runs.
Consider they did all that with the following players having abbreviated seasons.
- Jose Altuve: 124 games
- Carlos Correa: 75 games
- George Springer: 122 games
- Yordan Alvarez: 87 games
This offense is ridiculous when it's at full strength and that appears to be the case right now.
6. Rays are bringing a platoon-fest
While the Astros will likely have similar lineups each game, the Rays' lineup hinges on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. The Astros first three starters are righties, but wholesale changes during the game are possible and Miley is a lefty.
The following players could match up in platoons:
- L: Ji-Man Choi; R: Yandy Diaz or Jesus Aguilar
- L: Joey Wendle; R: Michael Brosseau or Yandy Diaz
- L: Brandon Lowe; R: Matt Duffy
- L: Austin Meadows; R: Avisail Garcia
The Rays will be a lot more aggressive in using their bench than the Astros this series.
I have the Astros winning it all for the second time in three years -- which kickstarts the "dynasty" talk, by the way -- but it'll take them five games here and by no means am I overly confident in the pick. The Rays are dangerous. Given that this is a 107-win team against a wild card, this looks to be surprisingly competitive.