It’s unfair to the Tampa Bay Rays that every preview of their American League Division Series will paint them as massive underdogs. The Rays are a really good team. You don’t win 96 games and outscore opponents by 113 runs by getting lucky. In the Rays’ case, you do it with an army of pitchers and a strategy that often encourages using as many of them as possible.
As yet, by nearly every measurement, the Houston Astros are a vastly superior team. The Astros boast the best offense in baseball, according to wRC+, an advanced stat that measures offensive production. The team’s starters combined for a 3.61 ERA, which ranked third. Even Houston’s bullpen was solid. Astros relievers combined for a 3.75 ERA in the regular season, which ranked second in baseball — just barely behind the Rays. The Astros also posted a run differential of 280, the best in baseball. Houston isn’t just the favorite to win this series, they are the favorite to win the whole thing.
That’s not to say the Rays can’t win. Of course they can. Sillier things have happened in a five-game series. Tampa Bay’s strategy doesn’t even have to change. Use that army of pitchers, keep the powerful Astros hitters guessing and do just enough at the plate to scrape out three wins. That’s not easy to do against the Astros, so the Rays will need to execute perfectly to win this series.
Game 1: Friday, Oct. 4, in Houston, 2:05 p.m. ET (FS1)
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 5, in Houston, 9:07 p.m. ET (FS1)
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 7, in Tampa Bay, 1:05 p.m. (MLB Network)
Game 4*: Tuesday, Oct. 8, in Tampa Bay, 4:15 p.m. (FS1)
Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 10, in Houston, 8:37 p.m. (FS1)
* if necessary
Need more proof the Rays can win this series? They came out on top in the regular season. The Rays went 4-3 against the Astros in 2019. Tampa Bay was outscored by 13 runs, mostly due to a 15-1 win by the Astros in August. Three of the Rays’ wins came during the first series of the season, all the way back in March. Both teams have changed so much since then that you can just throw those games out. In fact, you can throw out the entire head-to-head matchup because seven games isn’t a huge sample. It’s also not predictive. What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter when the playoffs start.
Game 1: Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58) vs. Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.78)
Game 2: Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50) vs. Blake Snell (6-8, 4.29)
Game 3: Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05) vs. Zack Greinke (18-5, 2.93)
Game 4*: TBD vs. TBD
Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD
Astros keys to victory
• The Astros have the workhorses on the mound. Cole, Greinke and Verlander combine to form a murderer’s row for Houston. If all three of them are on, the Astros will win the series easily. Cole’s 2.50 ERA ranked third, Verlander’s 2.58 ERA ranked fourth and Greinke’s 2.92 ERA ranked ninth this season. Houston has no issue keeping those guys on the mound as long as possible. The team averaged 92 pitches from their starters throughout the season. That figure ranked as the fourth-highest in baseball. In an era of openers and aggressive pitching changes, the Astros want their starters to go deep.
• If one of those pitchers fails to produce, the Astros’ offense can carry the team. Houston’s 125 wRC+ makes them the best offense in baseball. The team’s lineup is deep with All-Stars you know — like Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer. But it also boasts some surprising breakouts like Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel. Fantasy players might remember Jose Altuvé’s slow start, but he rebounded to hit .325/.372/.622 in the second half. The Astros’ offense — particularly the team’s top seven spots in the batting order — is relentless.
Rays keys to victory
• It’s all about pitching matchups. The Rays are the most aggressive team with its starters, averaging a league-low 70 pitches per start in 2019. Once their starter leaves a game, the Rays try to overwhelm teams with a steady diet of elite relievers. Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Emilio Pagán may not be household names just yet, but they made the A’s hitters look silly Wednesday. If those guys are tired, the team can rely on Chaz Roe and Ryan Yarbrough to pick up the slack. While it’s risky to rely on so many pitchers, the Rays offset that by only asking them to pick up a few outs per appearance. That can minimize damage if one of those relievers is having an off night.
• It might seem small, but the Rays run the bases much better than the Astros. Tampa Bay ranked eighth in baseball with 94 steals, which have become a dying art in today’s game. It’s not just about steals, though. It’s also about knowing when to be aggressive on the base paths and judging when it’s safe to take the extra base. That’s something the Rays did well in 2019, according to BsR, FanGraphs’ base-running metric. It could be the Rays’ key to maximizing their run production against the Astros’ dominant starters.
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