A short-rest Justin Verlander in Game 4 of the ALDS, and largely because of his poor outing the Rays defeated the Astros by a score of 4-1 (box score). The Tampa Bay win means that the two teams will play a decisive Game 5 back in Houston on Thursday.
Verlander lasted just 3 2/3 innings, and over that brief span he allowed seven hits and four earned runs. Along the way he struck out five and walked two, and the Rays worked him for 84 pitches.
Across the way, Rays manager Kevin Cash attacked Game 4 with his bullpen, and he did so to great effect. Six Tampa Bay relievers, none working more than Nick Anderson's 2 1/3 innings, combined for only one run across nine innings. In something of a plot twist, reigning AL Cy Young winner and ALDS Game 2 starter Blake Snell was summoned to pitch his team out of a ninth-inning game. He came in with runners on the corners and one out and registered a pressure strikeout and ground-out to end it.
The Astros had chances at various points, but the Tampa Bay defense came through with big plays. In the second, Choi made a diving snare on a Josh Reddick liner with a runner on first to end the inning. In the fourth, Adames' relay throw from Kevin Kiermaier cut down Jose Altuve at the plate and snuffed out what would've been the first Houston run of the game. In the sixth Michael Brantley lined out to Choi, who promptly doubled George Springer off first.
As a consequence of the Rays' second win in an elimination game in as many days, these two teams will play one more to determine who advances to the ALCS to face the Yankees.
How the Rays won
While the offense did a great job of roughing up Verlander in the early frames, the story from the Tampa Bay perspective was the excellent performance of the bullpen and the excellent handling of that bullpen by Cash.
The Astros during the regular season scored a whopping 920 runs and led the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. That's a powerhouse offense that right now is at close to full strength, and the Rays pretty well suffocated them on Tuesday night.
This wasn't a Rays-style "opener" game; this was a bullpen working nine innings against a powerhouse lineup and doing so under winner-or-go-home pressure. Diego Castillo, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson, Colin Poche, Emilio Pagan, and finally Blake Snell combined for the following line:
9 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 8 SO, 2 BB
Just 17 times during the regular season was the Houston offense limited to one run or fewer. No Rays pitcher in Game 4 faced more than seven batters, which means that no Rays pitcher faced any Astros batter more than once on the night. Hitters gain an increasing advantage the more times they see a pitcher in a given game, generally speaking, and part of what makes relievers effective -- again, generally speaking -- is that they almost never face a batter more than once in a game. The Astros in Game 4 faced six pitchers, and each time was the first time.
Not every staff has the depth and adaptability to attack a lineup in such a way, but the Rays have intentionally structured their staff so that something like this is possible. In Game 4, the plan worked to near perfection.
How the Astros lost
Really, this one's on Justin Verlander, who, as noted, allowed four runs and nine baserunners in 4 2/3 innings. Pitching on three-days' rest, Verlander lacked his usual sharpness and command, and that was apparent early, when Tommy Pham crushed a wandering changeup for a first-inning home run.
Verlander threw all four of his pitches in Game 4, and every one of them was hit with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph on at least one occasion. The average exit velocity on his curve -- he threw 12 of them -- was 100 mph. Here's how he diagnosed his failures afterward:
"The velocity was there, but the control wasn't and the slider wasn't. Mix that in with a good approach for those guys in the first, and then honestly, I need those infield singles to be caught. When you don't have it, you need the balls that are put in play on the ground to go your way, and they didn't. When those don't go your way, there's more traffic on the bases. I walked a couple of guys and they came up with a couple of big hits when they needed to. Obviously not the way it was scripted. It sucks."
Yeah, maybe not the best idea to call out those ground balls that didn't get turned into outs given how he pitched, but whatever. Verlander has been exceptional both this season (he's probably going to win his second Cy Young award) and since coming to the Astros, but he didn't have it on Tuesday. In terms of Game Score (a quick-and-dirty Bill James metric that measures a pitcher's dominance or lack thereof in a given start -- 50 is average and anything 90 or higher is an absolute gem), Verlander's Game 4 mark of 23 is easily the worst of his postseason career, which now spans 26 starts.
Highlight of the game
Let's go back to that aforementioned hosing of the speedy Altuve at home plate in the fourth:
That's just a stupendous relay throw by Adames. Who knows how that inning unfolds if any of that sequence is just a hair off.
It's Game 5 back in Houston's Minute Maid Park on Thursday. Gerrit Cole goes for the Astros against Tyler Glasnow. The winner goes to the ALCS to face the Yankees, and the loser sees their 2019 season come to an end. You can stream Game 5 via fuboTV (Try for free). Either way, the Yankees, resting up after a fairly easy sweep of the Twins, have to like the idea of watching these two teams wear each other down. The Astros have been dominant at home this season, and Cole is among the best pitchers in baseball. Give them the edge going in.
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