The American League’s 2019 wild-card game was over, for all intents and purposes, after just one batter. In Oakland, Tampa’s Yandy Díaz led off despite plenty of rust for the well-muscled Rays infielder: He had missed two summer months with a broken foot and returned for a grand total of one game in late September, in which he went 0-for-3.
That layoff didn’t stop Díaz on Wednesday, however. On a 3-1 count, he smacked an opposite-field laser that snuck over the wall, and Tampa took an early lead. The Rays’ win expectancy would never drop below 51 percent for the rest of the night.
Instead of a tense contest, this single-elimination game proved a bit of a snoozer. Yet as the Rays coasted to a 5-1 win, a more important, forward-looking theme emerged: As Tampa knocked Oakland out of the playoff field, it demonstrated just how it might prove a threat to the top-seeded Astros—World Series favorites who find the Rays blocking their path to eagerly anticipated showdowns with the Yankees and Dodgers.
Tampa’s winning strategy on Wednesday involved two key features. The first was a quartet of home runs: Díaz hit a second dinger, in the third inning, and Tommy Pham and Avisaíl García crushed one apiece. Oakland starter Sean Manaea had allowed a total of three homers and four runs in the regular season (which, for Manaea, began on September 1 when he returned from shoulder surgery), and the Rays matched those numbers after just 10 hitters Wednesday.
Against the Astros in the ALDS, the Rays lineup isn’t liable to repeat this performance; it ranked in the bottom half of the league in regular-season homers. The replicable aspect for Tampa comes in the identity of its home run hitters, who epitomize the unsung nature of the club’s position players. On Wednesday, it was Díaz and García who supplied the biggest blows; on another night, it might be Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle, or Travis d’Arnaud and Ji-Man Choi. The Rays don’t count on a particular star player to anchor their lineup—their best hitter, Austin Meadows, went a fitting 0-for-3 with a walk on Wednesday—but can threaten from any spot in the order. And really, given the Rays’ pitching strength, Tampa doesn’t intend to need a slugfest to win.
That’s the second key, which manifested in expected fashion Wednesday. The Rays have relied on their arms all season long. The Cardinals are the only playoff team that scored fewer regular-season runs than the Rays, who scored less often than the average AL team—but it didn’t matter because of Tampa’s extreme pitching performance.
In the regular season, Tampa was a top-three pitching staff in all the important statistics: ERA, FIP, strikeout-minus-walk rate. Both the starting rotation and bullpen ranked near the top of the league, and in a record-setting year of home runs, the Rays allowed the majors’ fewest long balls.
On Wednesday, a quartet of Rays pitchers didn’t allow a single home run, despite the Athletics’ ranking fifth in the majors in regular-season homers. In fact, they didn’t allow so much as a single extra-base hit. Oakland’s only run came to the plate via a three-base error and sacrifice fly.
Tampa starter Charlie Morton wasn’t as sharp as he could have been, but he successfully wriggled out of jams throughout his five innings of work. In the first inning, he induced a Jurickson Profar flyout with the bases loaded. In the second, he induced a double-play grounder; in the third, a strikeout with a runner on; in the fourth, two grounders with two runners on; and in the fifth, another double play, this one from the Athletics’ most dangerous left-handed hitter, Matt Olson.
Morton allowed five hits and three walks, but none of those eight base runners scored. And after he left, relievers Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, and Emilio Pagán combined for eight strikeouts in four shutout innings. This is the feature that makes Tampa a scary playoff opponent for Houston: You can’t win a game without scoring, and the Rays are built, especially over a short series with multiple off days, to prevent opponents from scoring at all.
In the ALDS, the Rays will have Tyler Glasnow, owner of a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts in a season interrupted by injury. Since returning to the mound in September, the lanky right-hander hasn’t gone long in games, but he’s been extraordinarily effective all the same (1.46 ERA, 45 percent strikeout rate, opposing slash line of .119/.213/.262). The Rays will have Blake Snell, who also recently returned from injury and hasn’t matched Glasnow’s success, but also won the Cy Young just last year. The Rays will have Morton, who might be the Cy Young favorite this year if not for the Astros’ top duo of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and they will have underrated back-end arms like Ryan Yarbrough, and they will have a fleet of high-octane relievers who give manager Kevin Cash a combination of length and shutdown stuff.
In the two-wild-card era, teams that win the wild-card game have played no. 1 seeds almost to a draw, despite the ostensible disadvantage that comes with navigating the play-in round. These wild-card teams are 27-30 in Division Series games, winning six of 14 series. That history suggests a typical 1-versus-4 matchup is much closer to a coin flip than that seed designation suggests.
Of course, the Astros aren’t a typical no. 1 seed. They won 107 games, with even better underlying numbers, and employ perhaps the majors’ best lineup and pitching staff. All those statistics in which the Rays boast a top-three staff? In almost all of them, the Astros have a top-three outfit too.
But if the Rays can eke out even a couple runs against Verlander, Cole, and Zack Greinke, they’re the one American League team with a real chance to limit Houston’s response at the plate. They’re still unlikely to win—FanGraphs’ playoff odds think the Astros are roughly two-to-one favorites—but at least they have the opportunity to march on in October. At this point, that’s more than 22 other teams can say.