After a dominant performance by the Tampa Bay Rays in a 5-1 win over the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday night, where Yandy Diaz hit two solo home runs, the stage is set for the ALDS, where the Houston Astros will take on an underdog Tampa Bay team. Although the Rays won the season series 4-3, the Astros shouldn’t have any issues winning this series. However, a versatile Tampa Bay team could possibly push the series to four or five games.
Houston, who finished the season with an MLB-best 107 wins, is one of the clear-cut favorites to win the World Series and rightfully so. They have one of the best rotations in the game and a lineup that absolutely smashes baseballs on a consistent basis. Their one-two-three pitching punch of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and deadline pick-up Zack Greinke has been lights out all year and practically unhittable. Alex Bregman has been the heartbeat of their lineup, looking like a possible favorite to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award, along with other studs like George Springer, Jose Altuve, and rookie phenom Yordan Alvarez, who has been an absolute monster at the dish.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay won 96 games this season, just one win behind their franchise-best of 97 in 2008, when they made a run all the way to the Fall Classic, eventually losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games. This is the first time since 2013 that the Rays have made the playoffs, but Kevin Cash‘s team has a very difficult task at hand in advancing past the ALDS, as they’re facing arguably the best team in the big leagues.
But given their impressive rotation and gritty lineup, the Rays should be able to put up a fight against the Astros. Their one-two-three pitching punch of Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton will be by no means an easy task for Houston. All three arms have superior stuff and been very good for the Rays all season. As for their offense, they have numerous guys who enjoyed career-seasons such as Tommy Pham and youngster Austin Meadows, who led the team in home runs, RBIs, and batting average.
Here are the deciding factors to the series and which team will ultimately advance to the AL Championship Series.
Can Houston’s Pitching Staff Continue to Dominate?
There’s no doubting just how good the Astros rotation has been all year, leading the majors with a 3.61 staff ERA. Verlander and Cole have been, hands down, two of the best pitchers in the game this season. Verlander went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, striking out a mind-blowing 300 hitters in just 223 innings while holding opponents to a .172 batting average. Cole’s numbers were just as impressive, going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA. He led the majors with 326 strikeouts in just 212.1 innings. These two were the only pitchers with 300 or more strikeouts this season, and the next closest to Verlander was Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians with 259. This dynamic duo made opposing batters look like fools, dominating every single time they took the mound.
Bringing in Greinke at the deadline proved to be a great move. The veteran righty went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA, giving Houston a great number three starter. Given all their success during the season, chances are this trio will continue to carve in the ALDS, even against a scrappy Rays lineup. Verlander has a career 3.19 postseason ERA, while Cole sports a 3.72 ERA in October baseball. Greinke has a 4.03 postseason ERA, which isn’t as good, but all of these guys bring a lot of experience to the table and know how to handle the big stage, which will be very important.
As for Houston’s bullpen, they’ve been outstanding all year as well, finishing third in the bigs with a 3.75 ERA. Will Harris has been one of their most notable mainstays late in games, sporting a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings this season. Joe Smith has excelled as a lefty specialist with a 1.80 ERA in 25 appearances. Roberto Osuna, the Astros closer, has been reliable this year, going 4-3 with a 2.58 ERA through 65 innings, converting 38-of-44 save opportunities. Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, and Ryan Pressly have also contributed to their bullpen’s success.
If they want to breeze past the Rays, the Astros will need consistency across the board from their starters and relievers. But considering how good they’ve all been this season, I don’t see any problem for their staff in this series.
Will the Astros Continue to Rake Against Elite Starters?
Houston will be up against a trio of solid arms in the first three games of this series in the hard-throwing Glasnow, reigning Cy Young-winning Snell, and Morton, a former Astro. But that shouldn’t intimidate them, as they’ve proven they can hit off the best of the best with a powerful lineup one through nine this season.
Houston led the majors with a .274 team batting average, with four different players totaling 30 or more home runs. Altuve and Yuli Gurriel both slugged 31 home runs, while Springer totaled 39. Bregman led the way with a career-high 41 long balls. More than half of their starting lineup hit 20 or more home runs this season. Every single player is a threat to go deep, and with high-velocity starters facing them in this series, one mistake up in the zone against Houston is going to hurt Tampa Bay.
They also did this damage without Carlos Correa for most of the year, as he was on the shelf due to injuries. Correa played just 75 games but still managed to slug 21 home runs. One of the biggest names on this team that broke out since his call-up earlier in the year was Alvarez. The big Cuban, who has a beautiful left-handed stroke, terrorized major-league pitching this season, hitting .313 with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs in just 87 games. Heading into what will be his first postseason, it will be interesting to see if he can continue to smash baseballs all over the yard in the heat of October baseball.
Houston has proven over the last couple of years that they can always kick it into another gear when it matters most in playoff baseball. This ballclub is oozing with confidence, and there’s little doubt that the Astros will once again impress at the plate — like they’ve done all season.
Can Tampa Bay’s Staff Contain a Powerful Astros Lineup?
It’s a question that many people will be asking: can the Rays starters keep Houston from scoring a lot of runs? It’s difficult to say, but if there’s one thing that’s for sure, Tampa Bay has the right arms on the mound to do so. Like I mentioned above, Houston hasn’t had any issue hitting off elite arms. Snell faced the Astros on March 28, giving up five earned runs through six innings and taking the loss. Glasnow, on the other hand, faced Houston in that same series and got the win, giving up just one run through five innings. Morton is the only one of these three to face Houston more than once this season. The veteran righty struggled against his former team, giving up eight earned runs through two starts. But, as we know, playoff baseball is completely different. Anything can happen at this time of the year.
Plus, the Rays rotation had the second-best ERA behind the Astros this season (3.64). If these three can locate and keep their fastball down, they will have a decent chance of holding the Astros to a limited amount of runs. But also, given how talented every single hitter in Houston’s lineup is, Tampa Bay’s starters could be on, but Houston could still string together enough hits to chase the Rays starters out of these games.
When it concerns Tampa Bay’s bullpen, they’ve been stellar this season with a bevy of hard-throwers who have blown away hitters; they led the majors with an MLB-best 3.66 bullpen ERA. As they showed in the Wild Card game on Wednesday night, the Rays pen has a lot of weapons. Diego Castillo is a powerhouse from the right-side, with a high 90’s heater and solid off-speed stuff. He had a 3.41 ERA in 65 appearances this year, including two scoreless innings on Wednesday night against the A’s, striking out three in the process. Nick Anderson was one of Tampa Bay’s most impressive bullpen arms this season, posting a 3.32 ERA in 68 games while striking out 110 hitters in just 65 innings. Lastly, Emilio Pagan has been lights out as their closer. The hard-throwing righty collected 20 saves this year, with a 2.31 ERA in 70 innings while striking out 96 batters.
Their staff has proven all year that they’re one of the best in the game. They also surrendered the fewest home runs of any team in baseball this season (181). Can they continue to dominate against arguably the best lineup in baseball across a five-game series? Only time will tell.
Can the Rays Lineup do Damage off the Astros Prolific Arms?
The Rays have a lot of players in their lineup who have found a home this year after struggling with previous organizations. Pham has had a big year, hitting .273 with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 145 games. This was his first season as a regular starter, after previously playing more of a bench role with the St. Louis Cardinals. Meadows led the Rays in several offensive categories this season, solidifying himself as one of their best hitters. Guys like Diaz, Brandon Lowe, and Avisail Garcia have all played their part, making the Rays one of the more fundamentally sound lineups in baseball.
They may not hit a lot of home runs, but all year they’ve consistently hit as a lineup by everyone playing their part every single day. The question is will they be able to hit off three of the game’s best starters? They faced Verlander twice this year and only managed to score one run off the future Hall of Famer. They fared a little better off Cole, scoring five runs across two starts. They only faced Greinke once but did some damage off him, scoring five earned runs and chasing him out in just 5.2 innings.
They’re currently riding high after a huge Wild Card win, and, as we saw in their postgame celebration, the Rays have full belief that they can make a serious run this postseason. It’s going to be exciting to see how they fare against three of the best starters in the game, especially on the road for the first two games. But keep in mind, they had one of the best road records in the majors this season at 48-33.
Prediction: Astros in Four
Although the Rays are currently one of the most confident teams in the postseason, I believe that the Astros will humble them relatively quick. I do believe it will be a good series: low scoring, good pitching, and good defense. But the best team in the majors will come out on top, winning 3-1. Verlander and Cole will dominate in Games 1 and 2, giving Houston an early 2-0 series lead. But Tampa Bay has Greinke’s number, and they’ll score some runs off him in game 3 behind a solid performance from Morton at home. Houston’s offense will prove to be too much for an inexperienced Rays team and will win the series in four games.
It’s going to be an entertaining series with a number of elite starters going toe-to-toe. But, in the end, the Astros will continue their quest for another World Series title. This team is just way too good in all categories to bow out in the Division Series. The number of experienced players who know what playoff baseball is all about will prove to be instrumental for Houston.
Game 1 will take place on Friday afternoon in Minute Maid Park at 11:05 PST on FS1.