The Rays got to within one game of being the American League’s Little Engine That Could at the expense of the well-honed Astros. The Astros sent the Rays home for the year as the Little Engine That Couldn’t, Quite Thursday night.
But the Astros know it didn’t come as easily as their four-run first, their two-bomb eighth, and Gerrit Cole’s eight-inning, ten-strikeout performance will look on paper. If you don’t believe that, just ask Cole himself as one reporter did after the 6-1 Astros win.
“It was a really hard fought series. A lot of credit to the Rays. They had an incredible season,” Cole said, after he was all but shoved out from the middle of the celebrating Astros to give Minute Maid Park fans a curtain call. “It was a dogfight for five games. We had to get hit in the face twice and then we answered the bell.”
Hit in the face twice? The Rays destroyed Zack Greinke on the way to a Game Three blowout and manhandled a short-rested Justin Verlander in Game Four to get to the Thursday night fight in the first place.
Despite saying he was only going to treat Game Five like the next game and nothing more, Cole knew better than anyone that the Astros needed not just to answer the bell but to ring their own. Early and often if need be.
They answered with four straight base hits—single, single, single, two-run double—and a 3-0 lead before Rays starter Tyler Glasnow could calibrate his guns properly in the first inning. Assuming he calibrated at all. In fact, the Astros may have known everything that was coming—several former players now working as game analysts swore Glasnow was tipping his pitches Thursday night if not for longer.
“No doubt in my mind,” said Preston Wilson, son of Mets icon Mookie Wilson and a former outfielder himself.
“Glasnow never changed in between starts! Tips every pitch!” tweeted Kevin Fransden, a former utility infielder who now works as a Phillies radio analyst.
To which Trevor Plouffe, another utility infielder the Phillies released in spring training, tweeted back, “I had his pitches this Spring Training. Every one of em and it only took an inning.”
The Astros had Glasnow’s pitches right out of the first inning chute. And it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Glasnow was or wasn’t tipping. If he was, he should be reminded of the elementary tip minimum. The Astros just love generosity. They gorge on it unapologetically. Just ask Yu Darvish, who learned the hard way in Game Seven of the 2017 World Series.
George Springer, who’d had a horror of a division series for the most part until Game Five, started the Thursday night machine gunning. Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve shot theirs to follow. Then Alex Bregman unloaded his bazooka into the right center field gap.
Then, after super-rook Yordan Alvarez grounded one that Rays shortstop Willy Adames had to charge to grab and throw, Yuli Gurriel, the Astros’ sleepy-eyed first baseman who only looks as though he’s having a snooze, cued one through a drawn-in infield to make it 4-0, Astros, before Glasnow struck Carlos Correa and Josh Reddick out swinging to keep it there.
No Cardinals-like opening riot for the Astros. And, thank God and His servant Stengel, no expletives-undeleted postgame rant from Astros manager A.J. Hinch. Hinch has so much class he’d sooner call a fellow manager who’s just been vanquished to offer consolation, encouragement, and maybe a good stiff drink, than stand on the vanquished’s grave giving a [fornicating] that’s-[fornicating]-how-we-[fornicating]-roll speech.
But, alas, no Nationals-like late explosions for the Rays. Not even a couple of firecrackers. They hit plenty of balls hard enough and sharp enough and just about everything the Rays hit found Astro defenders ready, willing, and only too able—by any means necessary—to turn them into outs.
Making Rays second baseman Eric Sogard—who hadn’t played in almost a month thanks to issues with his right foot, other than a pinch hit RBI single in Game One—the excuse-me hitter of the night, yanking Cole’s first pitch of the top of the second into the right field seats.
“You’ve got Gerrit, who is probably the highest-strikeout pitcher in baseball,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “We value Eric Sogard as a very high-contact-oriented hitter.” The problem was, they got Gerrit. And, the Astros’ leather. And, only two hits all night long. Tenacious the Rays are, but they couldn’t solve Cole or the defense Thursday night if they had Albert Einstein as their bench coach.
Sometimes the Astros’ leathermen had to do it the hard way. Such as Gurriel having to scoop Bregman’s throw off a slow Adames chopper opening the third like he was helping himself to a heap of ice cream. Such as Altuve having to throw fast and hard to just nip the swift Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in the top of the fifth.
Such as Springer having to leap and reach just enough to spear Austin Meadows’ high leadoff liner in the top of the sixth and Correa having to backhand one in the hole at shortstop and throwing long to nail Tommy Pham right after that.
And, such as Bregman, Altuve, and Gurriel collaborating like grounded acrobats to make sure Avisail Garcia’s bounder to third dialed Area Code 5-4-3 to strand Travis d’Arnaud (leadoff walk) in the top of the seventh.
But as tenacious as Cole proved on the mound and as sharp as the Astros’ defenders were, they still needed to drop something big enough for aboslute insurance against these just as tenacious, just as hell-bent Rays who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit until Astros closer Roberto Osuna struck Choi out swinging to end it.
They got what they needed in the bottom of the eighth. When Michael Brantley looked at ball one low under the corner before hitting the next pitch into the right field seats. And, when Altuve worked the count to 3-1 before hitting one over the right center field fence. Making the Astros’ little big man the all-time postseason bombardier among second basemen with eleven such explosives.
No wonder Altuve’s pretty little daughter went running up the third base line postgame to jump into Daddy’s arms the way Daddy so often runs and jumps to turn high hoppers and bullet liners into outs. She even upstaged Cole being the rare starting pitcher who reaches his closer for a bear hug before the catcher does to start the celebration.
At long enough last the Rays’ bullpenning—which no-hit the Astros from right after Gurriel’s RBI single in the first until Reddick dumped a single into center in the bottom of the seventh, with five arms out of the pen getting that done no matter what the Astros threw their way—ran out of petrol. And luck.
In plain language, and with apologies to Cash, the Rays got Coled. And boy did the Astros need that to happen, after the Rays abused Greinke and Verlander in Tampa Bay. Cole may not have been quite the no-question virtuoso he’d been with his fifteen-strikeout Game Two concerto, but what he gave the Astros in Game Five was suite enough.
“Cole was really, really tough tonight,’’ said Adames, who took a series 1.815 OPS with five hits in ten at-bats including two home runs into Game Five and also impressed with his own deft shortstop work. “I don’t know if anyone can get better than that.”
Earning the Astros an ALCS date with the Yankees. Two teams who spent too much of the season wondering when, not if their next player would find his way to the nearest medical clinic. St. Elsewhere vs. E.R. M*A*S*H vs. Gray’s Anatomy. The sportswriters will have to share press box space with the New England Journal of Medicine.
But oh what fun it would have been to see the Rays figure out a way to get to the next round. The Little Engine That Could against the Super Chief. Thomas the Tank Engine vs. the S-1. It’s not that the Astros won’t be a trainload of fun, but they’re well entrenched among the American League’s well established 4-8-4s now. And they’re not about to bust their own piston rods just yet.