The Division Series are always uncomfortable affairs for the favored teams. They are only best 3 out of 5 series and that means things like momentum, luck and even umpiring crews can have an effect on the final outcome. The Division Series for the top team in the league has all that, plus the fact that the team they are playing has some emotional momentum as they have just won a life or death play-in Wild Card game. It is true that the top team in the league like the Astros in 2019 has certain things to its advantage, such as playing at home, being fully rested and the big advantage of not having used up their best starter in the WC game.
In 2018, neither league’s wild card teams advanced beyond the Division Series, but as recently as 2017, the Yankees took out the Indians and came oh so close to taking out the Astros. In 2016, the Blue Jays beat the Rangers in the ALDS.
Note: The Rangers in their last hurrah for the time being led the AL with 95 wins. This season, 95 wins would have meant staying home in the AL at playoff time.
Back in 2015, the Cubbies took out the Cards and in the high point of the WC era in 2014, the 88 win Giants met and beat the 89 win Royals in a World Series matchup of Wild Card teams.
So, the Astros ready themselves for a Friday encounter with the Tampa Bay Rays, who went to Oakland and behind a struggling but successful Charlie Morton strangled the A’s and their drummer 5-1.
Here are some general facts about the Rays:
- At Tropicana Field they were 15th out of 15 in home attendance in the AL with 1.1 million customers
- Their regular season record was 96-6 and their 93-69 Pythagorean record meant they were a bit lucky to win that many
- They came in 2nd in the AL East to the Yanks
- They were a symmetrical 48-33 at home and 48-33 on the road
- They were 23-16 in one-run games and 11-8 in extra inning affairs
- They played very well down the stretch as they went 17-8 in September outscoring the opposition 127-98
- They somehow turned in a 17-10 record in August despite being outscored 130-129
- They were 4-3 against the Astros – going 3-1 at home in the first four games of the season and then 1-2 on the road in August at Minute Maid
- If Rays Manager Kevin Cash seems familiar, he had a short stay with the Astros as a backup catcher in 2010
Some facts on the Astros:
- They were 4th in the AL with attendance of 2.8 million
- They were 107-55 in both their record and their Pythagorean record
- They came in 1st in the AL West with the best record in baseball
- They were much better at home (60-21) than they were on the road (47-34) though their road record was only 1 game behind the Rays
- They were 24-19 in one run games and 10-4 in extra inning affairs
- They were consistently good all year and flourished in August (19-9) and September (19-6)
- Manager A.J. Hinch and Rays Manager Kevin Cash are good friends. Backup catchers stick together.
- The Astros put up a baseball leading slash of .274 BA/ .352 OBP/ .848 OPS
- The Rays were 6th in AL in each of those categories at .254 BA/ .325 OBP/ .757 OPS
- The Astros lead the Rays in most of the traditional offensive categories (920 to 769 runs), (323 to 291 doubles), (288 to 217 HRs), (645 to 542 BBs) and only (1166 Ks to 1493 Ks). The Astros have grounded in to 146 double plays to only 114 for the Rays this season.
- Young DH Austin Meadows leads the Rays in almost every category – .291/.364/.922 slash with 83 runs scored, 33 HRs and 89 RBIs. Star of the Wild Card game 3B Yandy Diaz (53 runs, 14 HRs, 38 RBIs in 79 games), 2B Brandon Lowe (42 runs, 17 HRs, 51 RBIs in 82 games) and C/1B Travis D’Arnaud (52 runs, 16 HRs, 69 RBIs in 92 games) all would have had more stellar numbers with a full season of games.
- The depth of the Astros talent is unmatched in the majors with Alex Bregman, George Springer, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa (when healthy) all playing All-Star quality ball.
On paper the Astros have a far superior offense to the Rays. But in the last 8 games they played at Tropicana Field they have averaged exactly 2 runs/game and have gone 2-6. That needs to change.
The Astros and Rays are very closely matched with their pitching even though they use their staffs in very different ways.
- The Astros starters have a fine 3.61 ERA with 907.1 IP
- The Rays starters have a near equal 3.64 ERA with only 702.1 IPs pitched. This is because the Rays are one of the teams leading the charge with “openers”. They will start games with a reliever for an inning or two in some of their games and then will shift over to a different pitcher for a chunk of the middle game.
- The Astro relievers have a good 3.75 ERA with 47 saves in 555 games.
- The Rays bullpen picks up a bigger chunk of the games. They have a similar 3.71 ERA with 46 saves in 772 IPs.
There are a number of keys in looking at this series from a pitching point of view:
- The Astros top 2 starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have both been Cy Young excellent this year. Verlander against the Rays has a 10-4 record with a 3.17 ERA in his career, but an even better 2-0 record with a 0.73 ERA in 2019. Cole has pitched well, but is 0-2 with a 3.51 ERA in his career and 0-1 and a 3.55 ERA in 2019.
- The Rays will send out two very good pitchers, who are both barely back from injuries heading into this series. Tyler Glasnow missed 4 months of the season, but has only given up 2 runs in 12.1 runs since returning. However he has not pitched more than 4.1 innings since his return. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell missed two months and has not pitched more than 2.1 IP in his 3 starts since returning.
- Third game starter Charlie Morton won at home against the Astros and was blown up at Minute Maid Park in August. Zack Greinke has career numbers of 4-6 and 3.36 ERA against the Rays, but arguably his worst start since coming to Houston was his 5 runs in 5 innings start in late August against Tampa Bay.
- Who will start in a 4th game if necessary is a question for both teams. Will the Astros try to milk a good game out of veteran Wade Miley or go with young Jose Urquidy? Do the Rays roll out Yonny Chirinos, who mesmerized the Astros in one start (but who also has had limited innings since returning from an injury) or do they use a reliever, which has thrown the Astros off-stride previously.
- Rays closer Emilio Pagan is probably a tad better than the Astros Roberto Osuna. The rest of each bullpen is a mixture of guys that can be normally trusted (Oliver Drake, Nick Anderson for the Rays/Ryan Pressly, Will Harris for the Astros) plus other relievers who may or may not perform in any particular game. Perhaps a jump out performance by a Bryan Abreu or Josh James might be the difference in a series like this.
The pitching is a bit of a coin flip though the Astros have the advantage of using Verlander in the first game and in the fifth game if required.
Kevin Cash has done a solid job with this team. Hinch has led his team all the way two seasons ago. Advantage Hinch.
The bottom line is that the Astros will be and should be favored in this series, but they need to come out and grab this series by the throat and not give a very good Rays team a chance to breathe. The Astros played under pressure down the stretch to pull ahead and earn the overall home field advantage through out the playoffs. However, the Rays have been playing for their playoff lives trying to hold off the Indians for the last Wild Card spot and in beating the A’s on the road in a win or go home face-off. The Astros have to take an advantage on paper and put it out there on the field.
Prediction: Astros in four very tough games.