ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The egg laid by Houston Astros righty Zack Greinke on Monday hatched into an immediate consequence: Afterward, Houston announced that Cy Young contender Justin Verlander would start Tuesday’s Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Greinke was following two straight gems from teammates Verlander and Gerrit Cole, but his start was very different. Greinke allowed six runs over 3 ⅔ innings, including three home runs to three different left-handed hitters. Kevin Kiermaier hit a three-run shot in the second. Later Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe added solo shots. The Rays won 10-3, cutting Houston’s lead in the series to 2-1.
Greinke gave up all three of his homers on off-speed pitches — the kind of offerings that were supposed to flash a productive contrast to the heat featured by Verlander and Cole. Instead, he became the first Houston pitcher to give up three home runs in a playoff game.
While the Astros still own a 2-1 lead in the series, the loss left manager A.J. Hinch with a dilemma. He had not tabbed a Game 4 starter, instead placing both leading candidates — rookie righty Jose Urquidy and veteran lefty Wade Miley — in the bullpen for the first three games. Miley appeared in relief on Monday, going 2 ⅔ innings and throwing 63 pitches. Rather than calling on the hard-throwing but inexperienced Urquidy, Hinch has decided to go with Verlander on Tuesday.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the world,” Hinch explained. “It’s no more complicated than that.”
Verlander went seven scoreless innings in Game 1 on Friday, throwing 100 pitches while holding Tampa Bay to one hit and striking out eight. Though he’ll be working Tuesday on three days’ rest, if Verlander is able to lead the Astros to a series-clinching win in Game 4, he would likely still be able to start Game 2 of the ALCS on Sunday at Houston, bumping Cole up to the Game 1 assignment.
This will be a new experience in Verlander’s illustrious career. He started Game 3 of the 2011 ALDS against the New York Yankees on three days’ rest, going eight innings, allowing four runs and striking out 11. However, he had thrown just one inning in a rain-shortened outing previous to that, so Verlander has never taken the mound on three days’ rest after a full start in either the regular season or postseason.
“I’m going to approach it just like the first game, and a lot like any other playoff game I’ve ever pitched,” Verlander said. “Which is kind of in my gut, it feels like a win-or-go-home game.”
Greinke, 35, saw his career postseason ERA rise to 4.58 over 12 outings. He entered the game 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA over 10 starts for Houston after being acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline.
As for Verlander, 36, he’s no stranger to potential elimination games. He’s won four of them during his career, tied for most in big league history. John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and Clay Carroll also won four such games. They were joined by Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, who won his fourth career elimination game at Greinke’s expense in Monday’s Game 3.