There’s only one problem with having three stud starting pitchers. You might have one of them going for you on too much rest. And just as too little rest is hazardous to a pitcher’s health, too much rest can get him killed to death, too. In Tropicana Field or elsewhere.
Just ask Zack Greinke, stud starter number three for the Astros. Who hadn’t pitched since 25 September. And, who got killed to death in American League division series Game Three Monday by a Rays team looking to keep their season alive in the first place.
After getting Verlandered in Game One and Coled in Game Two, the Rays flipped the script. They didn’t just Morton the Astros in Game Three, they bludgeoned Greinke for five runs before Greinke could get out of the fourth inning alive.
Charlie Morton, who was key enough to the Astros’ World Series triumph two years ago, had just enough to keep the Astros to Jose Altuve’s one-out, first-inning solo launch over the center field wall. And Greinke had little enough to resist early and often firepower, opening the gates to a 10-3 beating.
Remember with apologies to John Lennon: Baseball’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Put it in the bank—the Astros didn’t plan for a fourth division series game or anything else that didn’t involve opening an American League Championship Series with Justin Verlander on the mound against whomever. (Likely the Yankees at this writing, unless the Twins awaken somehow in their Game Three.)
Thanks to the Rays abusing Greinke and about half the Astro bullpen, A.J. Hinch had a decision to make, because Game Three exposed the Astros’ one wounding flaw: they, too, have a bullpen described most politely as questionable. And they’re up against baseball’s arguable best bullpen of the year.
It probably took Hinch all of about five seconds to decide. He wants the Rays to get Verlandered again in Game Four. On short rest, which fazes Verlander about as much as the sunrise fazes a rooster. On three days’ rest, which he’s done only once before in his major league life and almost a decade ago at that.
That may or may not prove a break for the Rays whose bats finally arose from the dead in Game Three. And the resurrection only began when a shaky second inning for Greinke climaxed after two hard earned outs sandwiching Avisail Garcia’s single up the pipe, when Greinke plunked Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Kiermaier almost promptly hit one high over the left field wall
Just when Greinke looked briefly as though he’d find some reserves by bagging Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham on back-to-back swinging strikeouts in the bottom of the third, Ji-Man Choi, the Rays’ hefty and popular first baseman, unloaded on 2-2 and drove one over the right field wall.
And then the Rays really got rude after Morton—who’d been so important to the Astros’ 2017 World Series triumph, especially his Game Seven finish—shook off Altuve’s leadoff double to get an infield ground out and back-to-back strikeouts (Alex Bregman swinging, Yordan Alvarez looking) in the top of the fourth.
Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ second baseman, hit Greinke’s first service of the bottom of the fourth over the left center field wall. A line out, a strikeout, and a walk to Rays shortstop Willy Adames later, Greinke’s afternoon ended almost mercifully and Hector Rondon entered in time for Matt Duffy—who’d taken over at third in the third after Yandy Diaz experienced a sore foot—to single up the middle and send Rondon out in favour of Wade Miley.
Then Meadows sent one over Astros center fielder George Springer’s head and off the wall to send Adames and Duffy home And Pham slashed the next pitch into right for a base hit sending Meadows home. And after Choi walked but Garcia forced him at second for the side, there the Rays stood with an 8-1 lead after four.
The Astros managed two off Rays reliever Chad Roe in the top of the sixth when Bregman singled, Alvarez doubled, and Yuli Gurriel sent them both home with a turf-hop single up the pipe. But Carlos Correa lined out softly to second base and, after Brandon McKay relieved Roe, Aledmys Diaz pinch hitting for Josh Reddick flied out to right.
At the rate things were going by now it seemed almost natural for Adames to drive a 2-2 pitch over the left center field wall to make it 9-3, Rays in the bottom of the sixth. Or, for Choi to reach on an unlikely high throwing error from Bregman at third, Lowe to send Choi to third with a base hit right over Altuve’s reaching leap at second, and—after Joe Smith, the sidearmer, relieved Miley—d’Arnaud to fly deep enough to right to let Choi almost stroll home with the tenth Rays run in the bottom of the seventh.
In the interim, Oliver Drake pitched two strong innings in the seventh and eighth to further save the bigger bulls of the Rays pen for Game Four, namely Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Emilio Pagan, with Colin Poche sandwiching a strikeout between a shallow pop out to center and a fly to normal right field depth to finish it.
These Astros who normally swing with authority went only 1-for-6 with men in scoring position Monday to the Rays going 3-for-7. Altuve’s first-inning launch tied him with Chase Utley for the most postseason home runs (ten) by second basemen in Show history, while Greinke continued his futility in Tampa Bay—he’s never won a game any time he’s ever pitched in the Trop.
Seven of the Rays’ runs scored with two out; seven Rays drove in runs. Not counting Diaz having to leave early with his foot issue, only d’Arnaud failed to hit safely even once otherwise.
And the Astros’ old buddy Morton showed no respect, either, striking out nine in five innings’ work and remaining perfect in postseason elimination games. Doing it Monday tied him at four such postseason elimination wins with Verlander, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Curt Schillling, and Clay Carroll.
Tuesday won’t give Verlander a shot at a fifth such win since the Astros still lead the set 2-1, but you can rest comfortably knowing he won’t complain. Unswept as they remain in postseason play, the Rays could still get Verlandered one more time in Game Four. They’ve never needed a running of their bulls as much as they will come Tuesday.