Houston steamrolled teams in the second half to clinch their third consecutive AL West title, winning an MLB-best 107 games. The Rays had to battle practically up until the last weekend just to secure a Wild Card spot, but they went into Oakland and dominated the Athletics on Wednesday night.
The Astros are the overwhelming favorite to capture their second World Series title in three years, but the Rays offer a tremendously unique challenge and could push Houston to the limit.
Time to sort out the madness:
How did they get here?
Tampa Bay had complete control of the AL Wild Card Game from start to finish. As soon as Yandy Diaz stepped into the box to lead off the top of the first against Athletics starter Sean Manaea, there was a different feeling about the Rays.
Diaz homered to give Tampa Bay the immediate lead, then homered again just two innings later despite having played just one game since the end of July. Rays starter Charlie Morton was able to escape a couple of early jams, and the bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and striking out eight.
Tampa Bay’s reward for winning the one-game playoff? A date with the Astros, who finished with the best record in baseball after going 50-22 with a +189 run differential in the second half.
Both teams have shown perseverance and adaptability despite a number of injuries to key players, and yet the two sides could not be more different.
The Astros have all the star power and notoriety. The Rays are more gritty in nature, but their coaching staff–led by manager Kevin Cash–showcased a clear knowledge of the scouting report on Wednesday night in Oakland. Just go back and look at how they pitched to A’s outfielder Mark Canha (hint: Canha essentially saw nothing but breaking balls).
Yet, these distinctive styles between the two clubs should make the matchup all the more intriguing.
Morton was the ace of the staff this season, but he will not go in Game 1 after he was burned for the Wild Card Game. Instead, the Rays will turn to right-hander Tyler Glasnow in a storyline that provides intrigue even before the first pitch is thrown.
The Rays acquired Glasnow at last year’s trade deadline in the Chris Archer blockbuster. Through the first six weeks of the season, Glasnow was one of the best pitchers in the game. The 26-year-old posted a 1.86 ERA and .518 OPS against in his first eight starts.
Armed with a fastball in the upper-90s and a tremendous curveball with over four feet of vertical movement, Glasnow overpowered opposing hitters. But he suffered a right forearm strain in mid-May, and a setback in his rehab process threatened to derail his season.
Glasnow would make his return on Sept. 8, and he has consistently ramped up his activity. Not to mention, he does not seem to have lost any dominance. In 12 1/3 innings since the return from IL, Glasnow struck out 21 batters and allowed just five hits.
How long can he go? Glasnow’s longest start since returning is 4 1/3 innings, but the Rays might not need more than five given the depth and quality of their bullpen.
Cash already named left-hander Blake Snell the starter for Game 2 of the series, which is equally interesting.
Snell was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball in 2018, winning the AL Cy Young Award and earning a five-year contract extension in the offseason.
He got off to another fabulous start in April and was effective in May, but he suffered through an atrocious June where he posted a 9.64 ERA in six starts.
Although Snell would string together some good outings in July, he too would hit the IL after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his throwing elbow. Snell has not been quite as effective as Glasnow in his own return, but he is still as talented as any pitcher in the game.
Morton fills out the rotation. Morton anchored the staff all season and has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball. Despite facing adversity in the Wild Card, Morton induced a pair of massive double play balls and also had some key strikeouts.
The rest is a mystery. Tampa Bay could elect to go with Yonny Chirinos or Ryan Yarbrough to start a potential Game 4, or even test Glasnow on short rest.
Houston’s staff does not need a ton of description. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have been utterly dominant throughout the season, and both aces have stepped their game up in the second half. They are the two favorites to capture the AL Cy Young Award.
Verlander finished 2019 with the fifth-lowest WHIP (0.803) in MLB history, and he gave fans a thrill by throwing a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on the first day of September. He led the MLB in innings pitched (223) and wins (21) while ranking first among all pitchers in fWAR after the All-Star break.
As expected, Verlander will get the ball in Game 1.
Meanwhile, Cole led all pitchers in fWAR for the entire season. Another 20-game winner, Cole led the majors in strikeouts (326), K/9 (13.8) and ERA+ (185), and he reached double-digit strikeouts in all six of his starts in September. He might just be the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
So who is third in line? Oh, just another former Cy Young in Zack Grienke. The veteran right-hander posted a 8-1 record with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts after the Astros stunned the rest of the league by acquiring him at the last minute of the July trade deadline.
Whereas Verlander and Cole beat you with power, Greinke dominates with finesse and a masterful changeup that has given him so much success throughout his career.
The first three starters certainly speak for themselves. But, much like the Rays, it is a bit of a mystery as to who will take the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
Left-hander Wade Miley–who signed with Houston as a free agent this past winter–pitched himself out of the playoff rotation by posting a 6.86 ERA over his last 11 starts. Aaron Sanchez is done for the season, and Brad Peacock has mostly been used in relief after a number of injuries in June and August.
The answer might be Jose Urquidy, who made a pair of starts in September.
Ultimately, Houston will lean on the three “angels of death.”
The narrative surrounding Tampa Bay’s offense heading into the postseason was that they likely would not beat you with slugging. After all, they had the least amount of homers of any team in the American League. And yet, they scored all five of their runs via the home run on Wednesday.
Diaz could provide a massive spark for the Rays even beyond what he was able to do on Wednesday night. Remember, this is a guy that had 14 homers and an .818 OPS in 79 regular season games.
Avisail Garcia had a big second half, and he followed up by homering in the Wild Card Game as well. So did Tommy Pham, who ultimately is the catalyst for the Rays given his power, plate discipline and speed on the base paths (Pham stole 25 bases this year).
The Rays will especially need their left-handed bats in the series, which means that we could see a lot of Ji-Man Choi and Joey Wendle in addition to Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier.
As I mentioned in my AL Wild Card preview, shortstop Willy Adames could be a major difference-maker after a big second half, and Travis D’Arnaud has been more than just a pleasant surprise after the Rays claimed him off waivers in May.
Ultimately, the Rays are going to need to find ways to string hits together. Unfortunately, they ranked towards the bottom of the American League in terms of strikeouts, which obviously does not bode well against the likes of Verlander, Cole and a host of flamethrower’s in Houston’s bullpen.
Although the Astros lost George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa at various points of the season, they still finished third in the majors in runs scored.
There never seems to be any shortage of big bats coming through Houston’s system. Yordan Alvarez is well on his way to winning AL Rookie of the Year after one of the most prolific 87-game stretches that baseball has ever seen. Alvarez slashed .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers and 78 RBI, and his 178 wRC+ was the second-best in the majors for all players with at least 350 plate appearances.
Though he has been a productive hitter in the past, Yuli Gurriel was one of the most productive bats in all of baseball this past season, and he absolutely crushes right-handers. Gurriel slashed .326/.382/.623 with 17 homers in the second half. Despite struggling down the stretch, he still hit four homers in September.
Of course, the core four are still at the very heart of this Houston team. Bregman, Springer, Altuve and Correa were the standouts on the 2017 World Series squad, and they will once again carry a lot of weight on their shoulders.
Bregman continues to ascend as one of the best players in the game. He finished the season ranked just behind Mike Trout in fWAR (8.5) and has been the standout player of the second half, ranking first in fWAR, wRC+, OPS and wOBA since the All-Star break.
Springer also had a career year despite missing 60 games due to injury. He set new highs in homers (39), RBI (96) and OPS (.974) while also ranking in the top 10 in fWAR and posting 11 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
Altuve missed nearly 60 games as well, but he hit 31 homers and had a .903 OPS for the season. Correa was the least healthy of the three, playing just 74 games. Still, he clubbed 21 homers and had a .926 OPS when he was in the lineup.
Just for good measure, Michael Brantley–who the Astros signed in the offseason–slashed .311/.372/.503 with 22 homers and 90 RBI, and he adds another dangerous lefty bat.
The Astros also have good depth on the bench, with the likes of Aledmys Diaz and Martin Maldonado available. Rookie Kyle Tucker might make the postseason roster as well, which would give Houston a left-handed option in pinch-hit situations.
This is where the real strength of the Tampa Bay Rays lies: the quality and depth in their relief corps.
The Rays led the majors in bullpen fWAR and bullpen ERA, and they have no shortage of options from both sides of the rubber.
Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson were absolutely electrifying in their respective appearances during the AL Wild Card Game. Emilio Pagan has had his struggles in save situations this year, but he was still one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. Oliver Drake and Andrew Kittredge were excellent in September, and Jalen Beeks has some power stuff.
Bullpen depth is one of the greatest assets that any team can have in October, and the Rays have that in spades. If Tampa Bay were to have any advantage over Houston, it would be that they can throw a ton of different looks at Astros hitters and not let them get into a groove.
Plus, Cash is one of the best at managing his bullpen unit, and he knows how and when to pull all the strings.
While the Rays led the majors in bullpen fWAR and ERA, the Astros ranked eighth in fWAR and second in ERA. Though some injuries have clouded some of the roles in their pen, Astros manager A.J. Hinch is just as brilliant as Cash when it comes to matchups.
The trio of Will Harris, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna is as good as any in baseball. Joe Smith has been fantastic since returning after the All-Star break.
Houston will also have the luxury of sending Peacock to the bullpen, and they may elect to keep Miley on the postseason roster because he is tough on lefties and they lack left-handed options in relief.
Tampa Bay could absolutely make things interesting because of the way that they utilize their bullpen. Even though they had a -13 run differential in seven games against the Astros, they won the season series. The question is, can they scratch out enough runs to match Houston’s offensive firepower?
Ultimately, the answer to that question is no.
The Astros are just relentless, and they have a mix of hitters that are both aggressive and ridiculously vigilant at the plate. It also does not help that the Rays strike out a lot, something that both Verlander and Cole figure to do a lot of in Game 1 and Game 2.
Cash is going to get creative during this series, and he might just find a way to keep Houston’s bats in check. But Houston is too well-rounded of a team to get bounced in the first round.