ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ursula is happy about the Rays. She is Australian and drives for Uber. Her Wednesday morning was a busy one, as visiting baseball fans headed for the airport in Tampa to catch flights back to Houston. Many of them wore orange Astros T-shirts and were unhappy, but they think everything will be fine at home.
Ursula hopes for the best in Game 5, but one way or another, she sees the two glorious days at Tropicana Field as bittersweet. She lives on the Tampa side of the bay, and people there were excited that the Rays planned to construct a new ballpark in Ybor City. Then they were crestfallen when Rays owner Stuart Sternberg declared those plans dead last December at the winter meetings in Las Vegas.
“We don’t have necessarily Plan B right now,” Sternberg said in that Vegas ballroom. “We tried with this sincerity back in 2008. We’ve done it now over the past three years. Using a baseball term, you could say we’ve had two strikes. We’ve got two strikes right now.”
Many Rays fans, Ursula feels, have simply given up. To them, the Rays are as good as gone — probably to Montreal. Still, it was fun to see the ballpark full. It was a glimpse of what could have been. What Ursula apparently did not know was that Jane Castor, the mayor of Tampa, had taken the opportunity presented by the Rays’ stirring success to extend an olive branch to Sternberg and his partners.
“I really feel like we should probably maybe just start over again,” Castor told the Tampa Bay Times. “Everybody just come back to the table and start over again. Finding out what the Rays want and need, and then which community can best fulfill those needs.”
The Times also reported that the city of St. Petersburg won’t stand in the way if the Rays want to reopen talks with Hillsborough County. All of this is very sudden.
When I landed in Tampa for Game 3, with the powerful Astros holding a 2-0 American League Division Series lead and future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke lined up to finish the series, it figured to be a short trip. Houston had bigger fish to fry, so to speak, and with the Yankees handling their business against the Minnesota Twins, the Astros needed to wrap things up and get their pitching staff aligned for the brutal New York lineup. Two days later, the landscape of this ALDS matchup has fundamentally shifted.
Greinke struggled. So did Game 4 starter Justin Verlander, working on short rest. The Astros’ bats fell silent. The Rays played long ball while flashing dazzling defense. Their vaunted, many-pronged pitching staff stifled Houston, with every hurler called on by manager Kevin Cash doing his part. The Trop was rocking. Yellow towels were waved en masse. Ji-Man Choi‘s name was chanted. A tight end caught a foul ball.
Buccaneers tight end OJ Howard makes an incredible catch on a foul ball in Game 4 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field.
After all that, the Rays and Astros head back to Houston even at two games apiece.
“We made it this far,” acrobatic Tampa Bay center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “It’s pretty safe to say, but we’re not content with this. We want to win one more and keep this thing going. We plan on doing just that.”
At the airport, a smiling TSA agent is seated at her podium, which has two places to stand. She has taped two pieces of paper onto it. One says “Rays,” and one says “Astros.” This is the kind of thing you see in a community abuzz about a sports team. The bandwagon is rolling, and everybody is jumping on.
But there is a mighty big speed bump lying in front of it: a big, right-handed fireballer named Gerrit Cole.
“Look, you get there in funny ways,” glass-is-half-full Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Sometimes it can create a little drama for you. Sometimes it can create a little bit of stress. I’d rather be here than at home and not playing.
“A lot of people hate and say Houston’s the powerhouse team. They’re a powerhouse team, that’s for sure, but we got a team that can fight and fight, and we don’t stop.”
Rays lefty Blake Snell
“We’ll take another opportunity to win a game with Cole on the mound. I certainly feel very comfortable with that. Anybody would, putting him on the mound.”
Despite what has transpired the past two games, much of the external focus concerning the Astros remains on their potential matchup with the Yankees, which still, somehow, feels inevitable. Houston’s pitching plans are scrambled. The Verlander-on-short-rest gambit didn’t pay off. It’s not that Hinch made the wrong decision. He, Verlander and catcher Robinson Chirinos all said the ace’s stuff was fine. Velocity readings bear that out. But Verlander’s control and command wavered. By his own admission, his slider was as bad as it has been all season. He sensed a media horde bent on laying blame on his three days’ rest and called it “low-hanging fruit.”
It doesn’t matter whether the short rest is to blame. Hinch tabbed Verlander for Game 4, and the Astros didn’t win the game. Now Cole has to face the Rays for a second time. If he falters, Hinch will have to empty the bullpen in hopes of surviving. If Houston wins, it will face a quick turnaround against a Yankees squad that has had plenty of time to get warm after surviving the autumn chill of Minnesota. Greinke would likely start Game 1. Most likely, Verlander would go in Game 2, on normal rest this time. We wouldn’t see Cole until Game 3, and to get a second start from him, Hinch would have to start him on short rest for a Game 6 or hope for a Game 7 to let him go at full strength.
But that’s for us to think about. The Astros can’t afford to go to that place now because if they do, the Rays will roll right over them. Tampa Bay has been playing the disrespect card, and you can’t blame the Rays for doing it. Outside of the local media, no one has treated them as an equal to a Houston club the Rays have outplayed through four contests. They have built momentum, and everyone from Hinch to Rays leader Kiermaier has remarked that the Rays are a momentum team.
“A lot of people hate and say Houston’s the powerhouse team,” lefty Blake Snell said after collecting his first save in Game 4. “They’re a powerhouse team, that’s for sure, but we got a team that can fight and fight, and we don’t stop. To get it to 2-2 is amazing, but we do know we gotta go to Houston and face Cole in that tough environment. That’s exciting for us to see if we’re up for that.”
That seems to suggest that the wisest path forward for the Astros is to not allow the Rays to get the early lead. It’s a simple plan but not one a manager can simply will into existence. A lot goes into scoring runs in baseball and preventing them from being scored. Still, Hinch recognizes what it would mean at Minute Maid Park if the slumping Houston offense got going early, as Tampa Bay did on Tuesday, with three first-inning runs off Verlander.
“In an elimination game, look what happened from the Rays when [Tommy] Pham homered in this place. [The fans] opened up and got loud, and their dugout was jumping all over the place,” Hinch said. “When [Willy] Adames takes the [Verlander] slider and goes deep, that creates that energy.
“Sure, when you have it on your side, it would be excellent. Cole goes out and goes one-two-three in the top of the first, our building will be awake. We’ll be ready, and our fans will be ready.”
The Rays have tough Tyler Glasnow lined up, and he will be fully adrenalized to bring his 100-plus heat. The Astros can gear up for that, but Glasnow also has a nasty high-spin curveball to contend with, and Cash, pitching coach Kyle Snyder and the Rays’ analysts will concoct a game plan that doesn’t necessarily involve Glasnow trying to throw the ball through the brick wall behind home plate. He has only two pitches, but they are both elite, and he can diversify his sequencing and location, depending on how his arsenal matches up with the Astros’ tendencies.
Given the Astros’ thirst for momentum and the fact that their collection of elite bats can’t be silenced forever, the Rays can’t count on another low-scoring game, even if that might be their preference. The problem is they will have to solve a pitcher who for months has looked increasingly unsolvable.
Cole has not lost a start since May 22. In that time, he has gone 17-0 in 23 starts, including the postseason, with a 1.69 ERA and 241 strikeouts, which he has piled up at a rate of 14 per nine innings. Verlander noted that few pitchers have ever gone on this kind of a roll, and he’s right — you can’t really do much better than Cole has done since before Memorial Day. He shut down the Rays in Game 2, throwing 7 2/3 scoreless frames with 15 strikeouts. He gave them nothing — well, almost nothing. What Cole gave the Rays during his outing is the same thing Verlander gave Tampa Bay and its legion of nerds with his Game 1 gem: information.
“I’ve seen a lot of good at-bats,” Cole said. “I’ve seen a lot of fight. A lot of credit to them for their preparation and putting themselves in this position. I certainly think they’ve earned it. And [they have] played really good defense. They’ve played calm, cool and collected.”
Although Verlander didn’t think the three days’ rest thing was a big factor in his struggles, the Rays thought the short break between encounters worked to the benefit of their hitters. Cash said some of the pitches were “replayed.” Will the same thing happen to Cole, or is he just too dominant right now?
“He’s a great pitcher,” Pham said. “We have a tough task ahead of us. The thing we can do is control the strike zone to have the best chance of success.”
For Cole and his teammates, everything is on the line. They were one of the greatest regular-season teams we’ve ever seen, they have won more than 100 games three years in a row, and they entered the postseason tournament as prohibitive favorites to win the World Series for the second time in three seasons. The word “dynasty” has been thrown around — with justification.
But for the Rays, we might be seeing even higher stakes emerge. With a dormant baseball community jolted to life over the course of two magical days and a mayor across the bay talking about long-term prospects that felt all but dissipated, is it a stretch to say the Rays are playing for the future of baseball in the region? Can a team that thrives on momentum really generate that much of it?
“What a team we have here,” Kiermaier said. “It’s amazing. It’s so motivating to be around these guys. We all have the same attitudes, thought processes about everything. We can play, and we know that.”
Few who landed in Tampa a few days ago thought they might return next week to see the Rays play the Yankees. Suddenly, that door looks very open, as do a number of others that looked closed only last weekend.
It hasn’t been a bad couple of days for Rays baseball. And if you do return to the area for the American League Championship Series and need to get across the bridge back to St. Pete, ride with Ursula. She’ll be happy to take you.