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Rays’ Bats Go Cole: Historic Start Moves the Astros Within One Win of the ALCS

The Rays were on the business end of one of the most dominant postseason starts of the last decade. The series isn’t over, but they have their work cut out for them.

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The first Tampa Bay batter who faced Houston starter Gerrit Cole in ALDS Game 2, Yandy Díaz, had the temerity to put a pitch in play. The bouncing ball appeared to be headed for the hole, but Astros shortstop Carlos Correa ranged far to his right, gloved the two-hopper on the outfield grass, and uncorked an on-target throw with what seemed like entirely too much on it. Díaz, who slid into first base an instant after Yuli Gurriel scooped the ball cleanly for the first out of the game, sat by the bag for a few defeated seconds, processing the sequence of events that had turned a likely leadoff single into a leadoff out.

On that first play of the game, Cole had help from his defense. After that, he hardly needed it. Cole held the Rays to four hits, three of them singles, over 7 2/3 scoreless innings, putting the Astros in position for a 3-1 victory that left them one win away from the ALCS. He walked one batter and struck out 15—tied for the third most ever in a postseason start—retiring every Rays hitter on strikes at least once. The righty recorded a new career high with 33 swinging strikes, which also set a single-start postseason record for the pitch-tracking era and fell two whiffs short of the regular-season record over the same 12-season span.

The Astros, who won 6-2 behind Justin Verlander on Friday, struck on Saturday via an Alex Bregman dinger in the fourth, a Martín Maldonado RBI blooper in the seventh, and a Correa liner in the eighth with runners on first and third. Because Cole was almost untouchable, both runs after the first felt like overkill until closer Roberto Osuna loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth, inciting a rally that Will Harris snuffed out with the bases still loaded. No Ray reached scoring position against either Verlander or Cole until a tiring Cole allowed a double to Kevin Kiermaier, the second-to-last hitter he faced.

During the regular season, no defense was better than the Astros’ at turning balls in play into outs—but no defense was tested less often than the Astros’, because their pitching staff allowed MLB’s fewest batted balls. That was the story of Saturday’s game, in which the Astros’ all-world offense, which went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and may have lost a run to a batboy’s stool, was almost an afterthought.

To watch Cole on Saturday was to wonder how anyone ever hits him. The answer is that these days, no one does. Cole has racked up double-digit strikeout totals in 10 consecutive starts (extending his own all-time record), and 13 of his last 15. He’s allowed more than one run in only two starts since the All-Star break, and in one of those, he was touched for just two. The Rays were the only team to top that, scoring four against Cole on August 28, but even on that day, he struck out 14 and walked one. The Astros won that game, as they’ve won every game Cole has started since July 12.

By game score, this was only the third-best start of Cole’s possible Cy Young season, but the two that topped it both came against Seattle in September. In light of the stakes and the quality of his competition, then, this was the crowning start of Cole’s campaign—unless, of course, he has a better outing in him later this month. At this point, no one would be surprised to see him somehow shift to an even higher gear.

Cole mesmerized the Rays with high-90s heat that touched triple digits as late as the eighth, changeups and sliders that snuck into the 90s, and knuckle curves in the 80s that produced helpless-looking swings. The Rays aren’t a great contact team, but they aren’t overly prone to chasing outside the strike zone, and they did Cole few favors, aside from Díaz’s swing in the sixth at what would have been a ball four but instead set up a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play. By staying somewhat selective, they ran up his pitch count to a career-high 118, which earned them a shot at the bullpen that nearly paid off. But it didn’t help them do damage against the big righty. Cole earned first-pitch strikes against only 14 of the 27 hitters he faced, but spotting the others a ball only delayed the inevitable outcome—emphasis on the out.

Because Cole was capable of locating on the corners for called strikes …

… the Rays were forced to swing often. When they did offer at pitches in and around the zone, Cole kept beating them, relying on his high-spin heat and natural movement to elude Tampa Bay’s bats. With the Rays’ hapless hitters geared up for his fastball, he periodically pulled the string, burying a slider or a knuckle curve that they couldn’t identify in time to hold up. In one stretch spanning the fourth through the sixth, he induced 11 whiffs in the space of 16 pitches. Continuing to swing seemed self-destructive, but there was no way to wait out a pitcher with Cole’s control.

The Rays’ starters in Games 1 and 2, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, matched up as well as anyone would have with Verlander and Cole, but only for the first few innings. Glasnow was arguably baseball’s best starter this season on a per-inning basis, posting a league-low FIP, and Snell is the reigning AL Cy Young award winner. But both pitchers returned in September from months-long injury absences, and neither had time to build back up to full strength. Glasnow hadn’t thrown more than 66 pitches since mid-May, and Snell hadn’t thrown more than 62 since late July. Glasnow seemed to tire in the fateful fifth inning on Friday, and Snell allowed Bregman’s blast in the fourth. Verlander and Cole kept cruising long after the Rays’ starters sweat had cooled.

Both games in this series have featured elite starters on each side, yet even compared to a pair of Cy Young winners and a 6-foot-8 specimen with nasty stuff, Cole looked like he belonged on a separate tier, one he might have to himself. Cole credited God for his late-inning radar readings, and while many may question whether God gets involved in the ALDS, the lightning bolts flying from Cole’s right arm look like the product of divine intervention. He’s entered a stratosphere that only a few pitchers have sampled since the heydays of Pedro Martínez and Randy Johnson: Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom. Out all of those post-Pedro/Randy aces, Cole probably possesses the most awe-inspiring stuff. He’s about to make a fortune in free agency, but he has more batters to embarrass before the bidding begins.

After taking on the top two contenders for the AL Cy Young award in back-to-back games, the Rays are one loss away from hard-luck elimination. Unfortunately for them, in a short series, the Astros’ rotation has the potential to be aces all the way down. The Rays will have home-field advantage on Monday, and maybe the best starting pitcher matchup they can count on in this series. Not because the Astros don’t have another ace slated for the start—Zack Greinke will go in Game 3—but because as good as Greinke is, he isn’t Verlander or Cole, and because unlike Glasnow and Snell, Rays starter Charlie Morton wasn’t sidelined for much of the second half of the season. The Rays haven’t solved either Astros starter in this series; now their hope of survival rests on riding the ex-Astros starter they signed.

The deeper problem for the Rays is that even if they do get to Greinke and extend the series, they may find themselves facing the same obstacles that stopped them this weekend. If the Astros want to get aggressive, they could bring back Verlander for Game 4 on Tuesday before giving the ball back to Cole, if necessary, on regular rest in Game 5. Houston has lost consecutive games started by Verlander and Cole only twice all season, on April 2 and 3 and June 18 and 19. So yes, I’m saying there’s a chance. But no team would want to be on the business end of those arms.