Thanks in part to Zack Greinke, the Houston Astros have survived to play another day. The Astros hung on to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in ALCS Game 4 on Wednesday night (HOU 4, TB 2) -- the Rays had the tying run at third base when the final out was recorded -- to force Game 5 on Thursday. Tampa still leads the best-of-seven series 3-1.
Greinke held the Rays to two runs in six innings in his most effective outing in weeks. He allowed five runs in 8 2/3 innings in his first two postseason starts and had 5.73 ERA in his final seven regular season starts. Not coincidentally, Greinke has been battling arm soreness the last few weeks, so much so that there was some thought he'd be left off the ALCS roster entirely.
The pivotal moment of Game 4 came in the sixth inning. With Greinke's pitch count climbing and Houston nursing a 4-2 lead, the Rays put two runners on base for the molten hot Randy Arozarena, who hit a two-run homer earlier in the game. Ryan Pressly was warming, so the Astros had their ace reliever ready, but manager Dusty Baker visited the mound and stuck with Greinke.
The decision was rewarded. Greinke struck out Arozarena on a check swing, then, after Ji-Man Choi reached on an infield single to load the bases -- Carlos Correa made a heck of a play to keep the ball on the infield and prevent the runner from scoring from second -- Greinke struck out Mike Brosseau to end the inning. He threw him a nasty 3-2 changeup. It was a Hall of Fame pitch.
The decision to stick with Greinke was ripe for second guessing. Heck, it was being first guessed on social media and in our live blog. Pressly was ready and Houston's season was quite literally on the line. Greinke seemed like the lesser option, but he got the outs and protected the lead. Afterward, Greinke was appreciative Baker stuck with him.
"It was nice having someone have confidence in me," Greinke told reporters, including MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, following the game. "Since I've been here, they haven't seemed to have confidence in my ability. It was nice having that happen in an important time like that."
Greinke cited Game 7 of last year's World Series, when he was pulled after allowing a solo homer and a walk in the seventh inning despite pitching well and throwing only 80 pitches, as an example of the Astros not showing confidence in him. The bullpen then blew the game. "That was one example, but there's probably a dozen examples if you look back at it," he told McTaggart.
Quick hooks are the norm in October. There have been 40 games played this postseason and only 22 times did a starter complete six full innings. Only eight times has a starter completed seven innings. In the late innings of a close game, managers these days generally prefer the fresh reliever over the tiring starter who is going through the lineup a third (or fourth) time.
Baker joked he said some prayers during his walk back to the dugout following the mound visit, and he noted catcher Martin Maldonado played a role in keeping Greinke in the game. Maldonado convinced the skipper Greinke could escape the jam.
"Maldy was adamant about, 'He can get this guy,'" Baker told McTaggart. "I said 'OK, you got it then.' This is the ballgame right here. It was more old school, doing the right thing that I thought was right. And we came out ahead."
Truth be told, Baker might be the only manager in baseball who makes that decision in that spot, and even then he might only make that decision with Greinke on the mound. The analytics (and common sense) tell you the stud reliever gives you the best chance to escape that jam with the lead. Dusty let it ride with Greinke though. It was gutsy, and it worked.