ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The Houston Astros were the kings of the regular season, winning 107 games, the largest number in baseball. So they opened their series of divisions against the Tampa Bay Rays with two more wins, improving their position as favorites to capture the American League pennant if not to win the World Series.
But now Houston risks failing to make it through the first round.
The annoying Tampa Bay Rays hit Justin Verlander and played almost perfect baseball to defeat the mighty Astros, 4-1, in game 4 of their American League division series on Tuesday, with two wins each.
Game 5, winning everything, will be played on Thursday in Houston, where Gerrit Cole, who hit 15 hitters in game 2, is due to start Astros against Tyler Glasnow.
"We play better at home this year," said Robinson Chirinos, the Houston catcher. “Thank God we gained the advantage of playing at home in the regular season. Returning home in game five is huge for us. "
Although no winner has been determined in this series, another team has already won a win.
The Yankees, who completed a sweeping sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Monday, can relax at home, rest the relievers and line up the initial pitchers while the next opponent is forced to fight for another game. And if the Rays won, the Yankees, with 103 regular-season victories, would gain field advantage for the American League Championship Series.
The Rays used a series of six pitchers – five appeasers before closing with starter Blake Snell – and threw a stellar defense on Tuesday. Snell, the 2018 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, was called into a risky situation in the ninth, with runners in the first and third and one out. He defeated Yordan Alvarez and had Yuli Gurriel hit a security guard to be the second to win the defense.
The Astros hitters did nothing special against the Tampa Bay reliever rope until Chirinos approached Colin Poche in the eighth.
The Astros had bet on Verlander to end the series and avoid further complications, but he was chased in the fourth round after giving up four races.
Choosing Verlander was a bet for Houston Manager A.J. Hinch. Verlander had released game 1 on Friday and was resting the ball – three days off instead of the usual four.
He had rested twice before, but both appearances came under unusual circumstances. During A.L.D.S. Game 4 2017 against the Boston Red Sox, Verlander released two and two thirds in relief to help Astros win this series. In 2011, he started game 1 of a Detroit Tigers division series against the Yankees, but it was raining in the second round. Verlander threw only 25 pitches that night, so he started again in game 3, with only two days off, and won with eight strong entries.
He was never asked to take a short rest in the regular season.
"The closest we got was out of the ring a few years ago in Boston," he said after Astros lost match 3 on Monday. "The thinking process is that the five game series is very crazy and we have to win."
But the Rays wasted no time destroying the Astro plan. They scored three races in the first round and, just as importantly, forced Verlander to work. He only lasted three and two thirds and threw 84 pitches. Two of the four races he surrendered came in individual races of Tommy Pham and Willy Adames.
Verlander said he didn't know if the short rest had made a difference, but fought with the control of his throws, especially the slider.
"I felt the speed was there," he said, "but the control was not and the slider was not."
Verlander threw 32 pitches in the first round and only two balls were hit hard. But the relentless Rays kept the pitch free and forced Verlander to take long counts. Pham returned to the left field, and much of the crowd of 32,178 at Tropicana Field erupted. When Verlander accompanied the favorite Ji-Man Choi, the noise level became deafening.
Tampa Bay became the first team to score three races in the first round of an after-season game against Verlander, which started 26 times in the playoffs.
If the Rays win Game 5, this will be Verlander's last game of the season. If the Astros win, Verlander will probably start A.L.C.S.
The Rays had brilliant defensive flashes, including a perfectly executed relay that seemed to suggest it was Tampa Bay night. Jose Altuve was in first base after a fourth-round single, and one of them later Alvarez took a ball to the bottom of the field. Kevin Kiermaier threw the ball cleanly into the wall and, with Altuve running around the third, threw the ball into the shortstop, Adames, in the shallow center. Adames turned and threw a laser at the catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who marked Altuve.
"That was probably the biggest move in the game," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "I mean, you can't run a relay better than that."
Choi also showed strong defense at first base. In the second round, he took a hot line from Josh Reddick's club with two outs and a runner in first. Reddick slammed his helmet to the floor in a display of frustration that would only increase.
Now the Astros, once considered the biggest obstacle for the Yankees to reach the World Series, are losing their way to elimination.