In 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays came closer to eliminating the Astros in the ALDS than the Yankees did in the ALCS. The Rays pushed the Astros to a win or go home fifth game, while the Astros, thanks to Jose Altuve, sent the Yanks home in the sixth game of their best in 7 series.
Flash forward to 2020 and it’s the Rays who eliminated the Yankees on Mike Brosseau’s late-inning home run. And it’s the Rays, who have had the brilliant regular season, which has been disguised by the brevity of it. Their 40-20 record would be the equivalent of a 108-54 record in a 162 game season, which is an extremely stout achievement. Considering they were coming out of the AL East and had compiled those wins against those Yanks, the Blue Jays, (forget the Red Sox) and NLEast teams like the still alive Braves and the up and coming playoff Marlins, that was quite an accomplishment.
The Astros as we know stumbled into the playoffs, toughed out a couple wins in Minnesota and then rediscovered their offensive swagger against the Oakland A’s in a three out of four takedown.
So, now these two teams with a couple shared connections meet one step short of the World Series. Astros’ GM/ head of baseball operations James Click had been with the Rays his whole career before taking over for the deposed Jeff Luhnow the last off-season. Former Astro pitcher Charlie Morton, who was a big part of the 2017 and 2018 Houston playoff runs and was on the mound when the team clinched their only World Series win, has been a big part of the Rays’ 2019 and 2020 runs. Former Astro farmhand Brett Phillips, who went to the Brewers in the “OMG, shoot me now” Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez trade has been a bench piece for the Rays in the playoffs, but was dropped from the roster for extra pitching for the ALCS.
How do these teams match up in the playoffs?
Both teams performed a little bit above average with similar slash marks (.238 BA/ .328 OBP/ .753 OPS for the Rays and .240 BA/ .312 OBP/ .720 OPS) and 4.82 runs per game for the Rays vs. 4.65 for the Astros in the regular season. The Astros were the best team in the league at avoiding the strikeout, while the Rays were the second best team at walking. The Rays are also the best base stealing team (%-wise) in the AL stealing 48 of 57 attempts while the Astros were only good on 22 of 33 tries. The Astros lineup is filled with familiar faces on the national scene between George Springer, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa with Kyle Tucker added to the mix. The Rays have an offense made up of mostly non-household names, led by Brandon Lowe and his 14 HRs and 37 RBIs in the regular season and by post season heroes Randy Arozarena and Mike Brosseau. The Rays offense like their pitching has been a true team effort as 16 different players had 10 or more RBIs in the regular season. The Astros only had 9 players with 10 or more RBIs.
If you were going to give an edge to either offense, it might be to the Astros, who seemed to come alive in the ALDS with the kind of big time hitting the fans got used to over the last three post seasons. Or….they could disappear again.
Note: In a side note, the player who hit a HR on the last pitch of the 2019 ALCS, hit a HR in the first inning of the 2020 ALCS – Mr. Jose Altuve. (He should have tore his own uniform off after launching that dinger.)
The Rays starting rotation was third best in the AL with a 3.77 ERA, while the Astros were sixth with a 4.26 ERA, but due to the Rays concept of starting games with a reliever (known as an opener), the Rays were 12th with only 258 innings pitched by a starter and the Astros were 2nd in the AL with 312.2 innings pitched. The Rays rely on a big three of Blake Snell (4-2, 3.24 ERA), Tyler Glasnow (5-2, 4.08 ERA) and Charlie Morton (2-2, 4.74 ERA). Ryan Yarbrough (1-4, 3.56 ERA) and Josh Fleming (5-0, 2.78 ERA) have also started this season along with a slew of openers. With Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA) fighting elbow soreness, the top starters for the Astros are now Framber Valdez (5-3, 3.57 ERA), Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.73 ERA) and Lance McCullers Jr.(3-3, 3.93 ERA) with young Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48 ERA) becoming a critical cog. The seven games in seven days, especially with Greinke ailing has to give an advantage to the Rays in this area.
The Tampa bullpen is very reminiscent of the bullpen the Astros just buried in the ALDS – the Oakland A’s. They are deep and talented. The Rays have the second best bullpen ERA (behind the A’s) at 3.37 ERA with an excellent WHIP of 1.19. The Astros’ bullpen had the 8th best ERA (4.39) in the AL and the 14th worst WHIP (1.52). The Rays had saves by ………..12 (12!!!!) different pitchers in a 60 game season. They have relied heavily on Nick Anderson (2-1, 6 SVs, 0.55 ERA), Diego Castillo (3-0, 4 SVs, 1.66 ERA), Pete Fairbanks (6-3, 2.70 ERA) and sidewinder Ryan Thompson (1-2, 1 SV, 4.40 ERA). The Astros used a very narrow slice of the bullpen in the first two series that is not sustainable in the seven games in seven days format. The main stays so far have included starters Valdez and Javier and then normal relievers Ryan Pressly (1-3, 12 SVs, 3.43 ERA), Enoli Paredes (3-3, 3.05 ERA), Blake Taylor (2-1, 1 SV, 2.18 ERA) and Brooks Raley (0-1, 3.94 ERA).
The Tampa bullpen has the depth to carry their team, the big question is who will stand up and perform for the Astros in their time of need.
The Rays were a team who won the equivalent of 108 games this year while the Astros were a team who won the equivalent of 78 games. The Rays are (and should be) favored in this series. But the Astros are playing for pride and to continue to prove they can win the right way. How far can that carry them? Hopefully it will carry them to the World Series.