The Tampa Bay Rays dropped Game 2 of their American League Divisional Series on Saturday, falling into an 0-2 hole against the Houston Astros in the best-of-five series. Game 3 will take place on Monday afternoon, as the setting flips to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
A question manager Kevin Cash and his Rays charges likely asked themselves during their flight home is, "just how can we get back into this series, anyway?" Rather than accept the Rays' elimination as a fait accompli ---- we wanted to provide four things they can do to make the series more interesting.
1. Keep pitching
Realistically, the issue so far for the Rays hasn't been the pitching staff.
Starters Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell have combined for 7 2/3 innings and three runs allowed in the first two games -- that works out to a 3.68 ERA, or slightly worse than Tampa Bay's regular-season rotation mark of 3.64. The bullpen, meanwhile, has permitted three earned runs of its own nine innings. (The Rays have also allowed three unearned runs.) As a club, the Rays have struck out 18 batters in 16 innings while only issuing six walks and yielding two home runs.
All the Rays can do on this front, then, is to continue pitching well. Charlie Morton is scheduled for the Game 3 start and should be up to the task facing his old running mates. Morton faced the Astros twice during the regular season -- one outing went well, the other did not. On the whole, Morton has proven to be a high-quality starter, and that would seem more predictive.
As for the bullpen, Cash should continue to lean into Nick Anderson, Emilio Pagan, and Diego Castillo as much as he can without wearing them down, with Oliver Drake and Chaz Roe filling in the holes as specialists and Brendan McKay and Ryan Yarbrough around to provide length.
Again, the Rays have been doing all this already. It just hasn't worked out.
2. Keep perspective
Through two games, the Rays have hit .177/.250/.210 with two-extra base hits and 21 more strikeouts (27) than walks (six). Tampa Bay's roster boasts just two players with multiple hits thus far -- Tommy Pham (who has three) and Austin Meadows (two).
As Joe Girardi might say, that's not what you want. To make matters worse, the Rays will be opposing Zack Greinke -- he of the 2.93 ERA this season.
On paper, it's not an inspiring combination. But we're talking about two games, and we're talking about baseball -- where, on occasion, even great pitchers have off days. The Rays don't have to look very far for evidence of that -- Greinke gave up four runs in five innings against the Los Angeles Angels in his penultimate start of the regular season. That would exceed the Rays' runs total this series.
3. Stay true
In other words, keep doing what worked. The Rays should remain aggressive in shifting, in removing their starters before they incur the wrath of the three-times-through penalty, and so on.
Cash and the Rays may have shown some signs of pressing on Saturday, when they had Willy Adames attempt a steal with the top of the order due up. Adames, for all his pros, isn't a distinguished thief -- he succeeded four times on just six tries during the regular campaign -- and his Game 2 attempt was part of a strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play.
There's something to be said about game theory and pursuing unexpected strategies sometimes, but there's also something to be said about not giving up the ghost on proven-to-work approaches after two losses.
4. Get lucky
As we've noted elsewhere, just three teams have ever came back from down 0-2 in a best-of-five series in the 2-2-1 format to advance. The odds are stacked against the Rays becoming the fourth, but the odds were stacked against those three teams, too.
Anything can happen in baseball -- especially this time of the year, when a play here and there can be the difference between advancing to the ALCS and going home for the winter.