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Why the Rays Pushing the Big, Bad Astros to the Brink Seems So Shocking

What felt impossible a few days ago is now happening: Tampa Bay is heading to Houston for a decisive Game 5 after getting to Justin Verlander early on Tuesday

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a five-game postseason series, the bar for surprise should be set super high. Consider this: The Houston Astros, to pick a team not entirely at random, are one of the best teams ever, but they still lost more than a third of their games during the regular season. They lost two games in a row 23 times. (Once they lost seven in a row, with the first four of those losses coming against Toronto and Cincinnati.) Before the postseason started, the Astros played 162 sets of five games, the length of a division series: games 1-5, 2-6, 3-7, and so on. They lost three of five in 37 of those sequences, close to a quarter of the time.

Keep in mind that this happened even though the Astros played plenty of putrid opponents between late March and late September. They lost two in a row to the Rangers (three separate times), the White Sox, the Reds, the Pirates, and the Angels. In August, they played the Orioles and the Tigers, the worst two teams in baseball. Justin Verlander started once in each of those series, and despite FanGraphs giving the Astros chances of 73.5 percent and 78.5 percent to win those games—one of which was in Houston—the Astros dropped both. According to FanGraphs’ game odds, the Astros’ average pregame win probability during the regular season—taking into account both teams’ lineups and starting pitchers, and which team had home-field advantage—was 60.9 percent. (Projections tend to stay on the conservative side, so they don’t forecast teams to be the best ever.) Yet still they lost a lot, and no one was shocked. No one even noticed, unless they lost a lot of money on an improbable Tigers or Orioles win.

So no, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Astros 4-1 to tie the ALDS on Tuesday, undoing an 0-2 deficit and forcing a fifth and final game in Houston on Thursday. The Rays are not a putrid opponent. The Rays are really good: the third-best team in baseball, by Baseball Prospectus’s third-order record. FanGraphs’ game odds gave the Astros, on average, only a 57.7 percent win probability in the first four games of this series. If they could lose a lot of games during the regular season with better odds than that and suffer back-to-back defeats against teams that finished far out of contention, then of course they could drop two to the Rays in Tropicana. We didn’t even have to imagine what it would look like. The Astros started their season by playing four games against the Rays on the road, with the first two started by Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The Rays won three out of four.

Yet there’s no denying that it does seem surprising that this series is still going, and that the Astros, who started their season by losing a series to the Rays, could easily end their season the same way. But why does it seem so surprising, when we should know better than to greet any outcome of a small-sample series—let alone an even smaller sample inside that series—with a “Wha? instead of a “Huh”?

For one thing, it’s October, a time when there’s no sense in staying so aloof and logical that you shrug off each game as a capricious spin of the wheel. While it’s true that almost any outcome is conceivable in a month-long tournament between good teams—much more so, than, say, an expected cellar dweller staying hot for six months and stealing a division title—we want narratives, not dice rolls, and clutchness, not flukes or fortuitous timing. It may make Billy Beane feel better to call it a crapshoot, but from a spectator’s perspective, it defeats the point of the playoffs to treat every series as a random-number generator or an experiment with insufficient trials. You can’t get excited when the underdog delivers unless you build up the 106-win Dodgers or 107-win Astros into unbeatable big bads. It’s not really so strange that both of those juggernauts have been pushed to the brink, but it’s more entertaining to treat it that way.

Second, the Astros seemed so formidable in the first two games, which will happen a high percentage of the times that they start Verlander and Cole consecutively. It’s not that the Rays were wiped out; they held baseball’s best lineup to nine runs in two games, and two of them scored on a dropped popup. But Verlander looked unbeatable, and with Cole on the mound, the Astros actually have been unbeatable dating back to July 12. To become the 11th team to win a best-of-five after starting 0-2, the Rays would not only have to go through Zack Greinke, but be the first team to beat Verlander and Cole back-to-back since June.

They’re two-thirds of the way to that goal, game-wise, although the last win will be the toughest to secure. After the Rays piled on Greinke and took Game 3 by a score of 10-3, the Astros handed the ball back to Verlander on short rest rather than risk a start by rookie José Urquidy or throw a bullpen game. Hinch went with Verlander on the grounds that he’s great, which was difficult to dispute. Still, this was Verlander’s first career start on three days’ rest following a full-length start, so there was no way to know how he’d respond.

A few years ago, I found that there is a real cost to short-rest postseason starts: Starters who face an opponent for the second time in a series on four or five days’ rest tend to do just as well the second time as they did the first, but starters who make a second start in a series on three days’ rest suffer a significant penalty. Even a diminished Verlander figured to be as good or better than the Astros’ other options, though, and there was always the chance that the penalty wouldn’t apply to him.

One pregame theory held that Verlander might lose a little velocity on short rest. That didn’t happen. Verlander’s average and max four-seamer speed were slightly higher in Game 4 than they’d been in Game 1. He threw 50 four-seamers in Game 4, and he showed no sign of losing velocity faster than he did on his first 50 fastballs in Game 1.

The problem was where his pitches went. Right from the get-go, Verlander wrestled with shaky control and command. He allowed a homer to Tommy Pham, the Rays’ second batter, on a centered changeup, then went walk-single-flyout-single-double, allowing three runs before he got three outs. He gutted through a scoreless second and third, but Willy Adames led off the fourth with a dinger, and a two-out walk was Verlander’s last gasp.

Verlander’s 33 Game Score was his worst of the season, although it wasn’t far removed from two earlier clunkers, which both came against inferior opponents: a 35 against Texas in April, and a 42 against Seattle in June. Compared to Game 1, everything drifted glove-side or stayed over the plate; the pitch plots from the two outings are almost mirror images. In retrospect, the Astros’ audible to Verlander might seem overaggressive, but that’s easier to argue in hindsight.

The Astros’ pen pitched scoreless baseball for the final 5 1/3, but the Rays’ all-bullpen approach paid dividends, as it often did during the regular season, when their pen produced baseball’s best WAR and lowest ERA. The Rays matched the Astros’ six pitchers arm for arm, and Ryan Yarbrough and the almost-always unhittable Nick Anderson combined for four scoreless frames in relief of nominal starter Diego Castillo. Even so, the Astros mounted two rallies, because a lineup as good as theirs rarely dies with a whimper.

In the fourth, facing Yarbrough, José Altuve led off with a single, and with one out, Yordan Álvarez drove a double to the right-center-field gap. Unfortunately for Houston, that’s Kevin Kiermaier territory. Kiermaier, Adames, and catcher Travis d’Arnaud teamed up on a glorious relay and swipe tag that retired Altuve with a millisecond to spare. Although that was a costly send for Houston with one out, it took a flawless Rays relay to work out the way it did. Houston had the makings of a big inning, but it wasn’t to be. Nor would an incipient sixth-inning rally last long: George Springer’s leadoff single was wasted when Michael Brantley lined into an unassisted double play. The Rays brought good gloves too.

A Robinson Chirinos solo homer got the Astros on the board in the eighth, but the next and last extended threat arrived in the ninth, when with one out Altuve walked and Alex Bregman singled him to third. In came Game 2 starter Blake Snell, the southpaw, one of only three starters on Tampa Bay’s staff who never appeared in relief during the regular season. Snell struck out Álvarez and got Yuli Gurriel to send a scorching grounder up the middle that Joey Wendle was perfectly positioned to play. With that, Verlander added another novelty to his first true short-rest start: his first division-series loss.

“We got Verlandered,” Rays skipper Kevin Cash said after Game 1. In Game 4, Verlander got Rays’d. Now Tampa Bay has to beat the boss. FiveThirtyEight says the Astros are 70-30 favorites in Game 5, with Cole going on full rest in Houston against Tyler Glasnow with Snell and Charlie Morton presumably prepared to pitch in relief. (As both teams burn their best pitchers, the Yankees will win either way.) But you know what those odds indicate: Three times out of 10, we’d expect that the Rays would win. Which means that if David does indeed slay Goliath—come on, say it with me—we shouldn’t be surprised.

Thanks to Sean Dolinar of FanGraphs for research assistance.