Zack Greinle is under some pressure as the Houston Astros' big trade deadline acquisition. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Tampa Bay Rays have a dancing groundskeeper named Willis Harris. And he sure loves dancing on the Astros.
Justin Verlander may be the smartest pitcher in baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Charlie Morton handled the Astros for five innings to keep his team alive in the ALDS. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Zack Greinke is a pitcher's pitcher, a craftsman who does not rely on speed. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Charlie Morton knows what the Houston Astros are all about. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Zack Greinke knows the Astros give him a real World Series shot. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Charlie Morton left his first start back in Houston searching for answers. But his legacy with the Astros is forever secure. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
No matter how spaced out you are, it's good to be a Houston Astros fan. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve's powerful swing is a difference maker. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros honchos A.J. Hinch, Jeff Luhnow, Jim Crane
Astros ace Justin Verlander is used to hearing the roars from the crowd. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.. — The breakdancing groundskeeper has his fun, doing the splits and spinning on his head all over the Houston Astros’ misfortune. Jose Altuve almost gets accidentally knocked over in the clubhouse by an elderly reporter. And Charlie Morton only needs five innings of his good stuff to beat Major League Baseball’s Dream Team
St. Petersburg is a weird place — and you can double that for Tropicana Field. This stadium most reminds me of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which may be ironic considering the Rays’ future split city scenarios that could have them playing games in the sophisticated Canadian metropolis.
The white roof casts a strange glow, even with the improved lighting. Everyone couldn’t be nicer. And balls fly out — at least when Zack Greinke and Wade Miley are pitching.
“I’ve never seen so many Rays fans in my life,” a woman gushes, walking into The Trop for this day game afternoon.
This for a game in which 32,251 show. That’d be a disappointing June day crowd in Houston. Astros Land this is not.
Still, the Astros expect to find it to be a much more charming place with Justin Verlander on the mound. Astros manager A.J. Hinch wastes no time in tabbing his ageless ace to start Game 4 on short rest after this 10-3 Rays romp. Which will be a first for the 36-year-old Verlander.
This move isn’t about desperation despite that reality. It’s about using the same urgency Hinch has used in these dangerous best-of-five division series since Game 4 against Boston in that magical 2017 run. You get the Astros’ best shot every playoff game.
There is no holding back in October.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the world,” Hinch says. “It’s no more complicated than that.
Greinke does not look close to ready for his own playoff moment. The prospect of him becoming the Astros’ No. 2 if Gerrit Cole bolts after this season should be alarming. The pitcher of few words gives up three home runs and six runs overall in 3 and 2/3 innings of work. On a day when Greinke sees his postseason ERA rise to 4.46, he turns Tropicana Field into a yellow-towel-waving cauldron of belief.
“I think we’re in a pretty good spot,” Morton says after his five innings of one run ball allow the Rays to hold onto hope for at least one more day.
Of course, the Rays are going with an opener (the unremarkable Diego Castillo for starters and then a bevy of relievers to quickly follow) against Verlander. This is akin to Tom Brokaw taking on Jerry Springer in a journalism debate.
Still, it’s The Trop. It’s St. Petersburg, where restaurants stop serving dinner at 8:30 pm sharp. Weird things can happen.
“Fluky things happen here sometimes,” Verlander says.
Morton is anything but a fluke in big games as Astros fans know. He looks like he’s ready to buckle a few times versus the Astros Monday afternoon, but never does.
“Best curveball I’ve seen this year,” Altuve says of his former World Series teammate. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Charlie Morton is a champion, whether the rest of the Rays can keep up is another matter.
The breakdancing groundskeeper at least gives them an entertainment edge. Willis Harris has been doing this for a while, but Monday’s number with the Rays rolling in their first playoff home game in six years had to be a new high.
“They just outplayed us in every phase of the game,” Astros MVP hopeful Alex Bregman says. “Tomorrow, we need to finish it.”
Otherwise, the New York Yankees who finished off the American League’s third 100-win team with ease on Monday night, will take an edge into a 2017 American League Championship Series rematch. Otherwise, the 96-win Rays will have a real puncher’s chance to shock the baseball world and advance.
“That’s a real good team over there,” says Astros centerfielder George Springer, who is 0 for 13 this postseason. “I don’t care what anybody says. We know that.
“This is going to be a fight.”
The Yankees blitzed the Minnesota Twins for 23 runs in their three game sweep. The Astros have scored 12 runs in three games against the Rays.
Welcome to baseball’s bizarro world. Tropicana Field has a way of turning chance into turmoil. The Astros know they can’t let the Rays groundskeeper start breakdancing again.
The guy puts on a heck of a show. But the Astros need to move onto the next one.