Jose Altuve helps the Astros always keep a leg up on the competition. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez's teammates are already looking forward to his second season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole went on a dominant roll for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Justin Verlander and Robinson Chirinos are a team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros manager A.J. Hinch (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Jose Altuve knows how to motivate his Houston Astros teammates. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are the heart of a historic run. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole has turned into the playoff ace that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow envisioned. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez know how to bring the power. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Gerrit Cole has the big game stare down. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Playoff baseball can be as fickle as a fanboy or an octogenarian restaurant critic. One minute you’re delivering one of the biggest hits of the game, slamming a double that goes bouncing off a wall in the Tampa Bay Rays’ spaceship stadium. The next you’re watching your speediest teammate get thrown out at the plate.
There are some black widows who treat their mates better than playoff baseball often treats its best teams. Especially in the best-of-five division series, where the slightest slip opens the door for an upset. The Joe Torre dynasty New York Yankees found themselves pushed to a winner-take-all Game 5s by Oakland in back-to-back years in the ALDS.
Those Yankees are considered one of the greatest dynasties of all time, but before they won the World Series in 2000 and before they got back in 2001 to lose an all-time seven gamer to the Diamondbacks, they needed to survive Game 5 against Oakland in round one. In 2001, the Yankees needed Derek Jeter’s epic flip to get past round one.
So is it really all that much of a surprise to see the Houston Astros, baseball’s modern Dream Team, pushed to the brink by the Rays? Only to those who’ve never really understood the colossal danger inherent in baseball’s compressed first round.
Maybe the surprise is how ruthlessly effective the Astros managed to be in baseball’s most dangerous postseason round the last two years.
“Welcome to postseason baseball,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch says after Rays 4, Astros 1 sends this division series back to Minute Maid Park for a winner-move-on Game 5 Thursday night.
Houston baseball fans have been a little spoiled by these Astros’ efficient excellence. Now, they get the true tension of an unexpected early round test.
No one promised winning a World Series is easy. Some of baseball’s most iconic teams have survived division series Game Fives. Now, it’s Jose Altuve and Co.’s turn.
“Definitely not concerned,” outfielder Josh Reddick says when asked about the mood in the Astros’ clubhouse. “Probably more frustrated than anything.”
The Astros score only four runs in two games in St. Pete. Their offense has been retiring for the night earlier than the most dedicated early bird special diners in this gray-friendly city of 263,000.
“We don’t really seem to be ourselves,” Reddick tells PaperCity, noting that the team’s quality at bats has not been close to as consistent as usual.
The Astros are betting that going back to the friendly roars of Minute Maid Park, where the team has gone 63-21 this season, including those two earlier playoff wins over the Rays, will change that.
“We play better at home this season,” says catcher Robinson Chirinos, who accounts for the Astros only run in strange Tropicana Field Tuesday night with a home run. “Thank God we won home-field
advantage for the postseason.”
It actually could be worse for this 107 win juggernaut.
If Will Harris does not save Astros closer Roberto Osuna and preserve Gerrit Cole’s playoff masterpiece in Game 2, the Astros could have been staring at elimination at The Trop.
Instead, they get to turn to Cole again in Game 5. Instead, they get another chance to prove their greatness.
Astros’ Elimination Game Highs
These Astros have been awfully good in winner-take-all games under A.J. Hinch. They beat the Yankees in New York to win the 2015 Wildcard Game. They broke pinstriped hearts again in Game 7 of the 2017 American League Championship Series. And of course, they jumped on the Dodgers early in Game 7 (after losing Game 6) to win the 2017 World Series.
Are you really going to bet against this team’s mettle now? Just because of a few bad days in baseball’s Bizarro World?
St. Petersburg is a strange place — as I’ve detailed. The kind of place where the friendly front desk clerk at a major chain hotel in anything but the scary area of downtown will keep reminding you that the hotel’s front doors automatically lock at midnight. The reminders are both nice and weird.
That’s St. Pete. Where else but here could Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be Yordan Alvarez smash a double off the wall that ricochets back and ends with Altuve getting thrown out at the plate after the Rays pull off a perfect relay?
“I think that is a big difference in the game,” Chirinos says of the Rays’ relay heaven.
When centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier plays the ball perfectly off the wall and fires a throw to shortstop Willy Adames, who uncorks a rocket that just beats Altuve by a step, allowing Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud to tag him, an entire ballpark gains new strength. The Astros need to hope this play doesn’t live on and become Tampa Bay’s own version of the Jeter Flip.
The Astros still make the Rays sweat out the ninth and bring in starter Blake Snell, last year’s Cy Young winner, to close. When Altuve and Alex Bregman both get on, Snell is brought on to face Alvarez, the rookie who is swinging like a big game vet in October.
Snell gets Alvarez to strike out swinging at a curveball after the big man fouls off two straight fastballs. “I knew he was coming in,” Alvarez says of Snell. “I was looking for fastball, tried to hit it. . . missed.”
That is how close the margin can be in October baseball.
Playoff baseball can be cruel. To even its steadiest hands.
Justin Verlander Falls (For Now)
A.J. Hinch’s Verlander decision — the right decision — does not pay off. The ageless ace looks more like Patrick Ewing with the Sonics than Tom Brady on this night, starting on short rest for the first time in his career. Verlander gives up three runs in the first inning, the first time he’s ever given up three runs in the first in his long postseason career.
From the moment, Tommy Pham sends Verlander’s eighth pitch of the game (a hanging changeup) over the left center field wall, Tropicana Field is rocking with hope. And as Verlander struggles to find the strike zone, that hope turns into a hype reel.
Tampa Bay’s first baseman/party DJ Ji-Man Choi keeps throwing baseballs high into the stands after successful Rays innings. This time there’s a breakdancing security guard to go with Monday afternoon’s breakdancing groundskeeper. It’s a booming bash in downtown St. Petersburg, not exactly a land known for its nightlife.
Even the stingrays in the Tropicana Field’s centerfield Touch Tank seem to be boogying down.
The Astros go tumbling into another winner-take-all October game. But do you really expect them to keep falling?
“We’ve been here before,” Bregman says, almost grinning at the prospect of it at his temporary locker in Tropicana Field’s visitor’s clubhouse. “We know we’re playing a good team, but we’re a good team too.”
Are you really ready to bet against these Astros’ greatness?