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Verlander struggles, offense lifeless in 4-1 loss to Rays

Decisive Game 5 Thursday in Houston

Divisional Series - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Four Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The good news?

The Houston Astros—best home team in baseball—need one more victory at Minute Maid Park to advance to the American League Championship Series for the third straight season.

The bad news?

The road team also needs just a single win to advance.

After trailing 2-0 in the American League Division Series, the Tampa Bay Rays have evened things at two games apiece following a 4-1 defeat of the Astros in Game 4 of the ALDS.

The Astros could never get anything going offensively in Florida, recording just six hits in Game 4 and scoring four runs total in the two contests in the Sunshine State.

Sometimes, one run would be enough for Houston’s Game 4 starter Justin Verlander. He went seven shutout innings just four days ago, allowing one hit and striking out eight in a 6-2 Game 1 triumph. But the Astros’ ace, long known as being fervent about his routine, was making just the second start of his career on only three days’ rest.

He wanted the ball, he deserved the ball, but it didn’t work out as the Astros hoped.

Verlander surrendered a home run to Tommy Pham two batters into the game and the Rays scored three runs in the first to quickly seize control. It took eight pitches for Verlander to allow more runs in Game 4 than he did in all of Game 1 and just four batters to concede more hits than in the series opener.

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

Following Pham’s homer, a run-scoring single by Travis d’Arnaud and RBI double by Joey Wendle put the Rays ahead 3-0. The trio of runs was tied for the most Verlander had allowed in any inning of his postseason career. The Rays had four batted balls with an exit velocity greater than 100mph in the first inning after registering zero of those in all of Game 1 against Verlander.

Conversely, Diego Castillo was mowing down Astros’ hitters. The Rays’ opener struck out the side in the first inning—Michael Brantley, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman in succession—after George Springer began the game with his first hit of the series.

Castillo retired two more Astros in the second, with a walk to Yuli Gurriel in between, before he was lifted. Josh Reddick smoked a ball off reliever Ryan Yarbrough that looked like it would end up in the corner, but first baseman Ji-Man Choi plucked the liner for the third out.

Verlander settled down a bit in the second and stranded a leadoff double at third base in the third to keep his team in it.

And, as lifeless as they had appeared in the first three innings, it looked the Astros were ready to strike in the fourth.

Altuve started the inning with a single. A double by Yordan Alvarez off the centerfield wall seemed enough to score the Astros’ speedy second baseman. But a well-executed relay by Kevin Kiermaier and Willy Adames beat Altuve’s sprint to the plate to keep the Astros scoreless.

The play was a huge turning point and a major letdown in what could have been a crooked number for the Astros.

Verlander immediately surrendered his second homer of the night, a massive blast by Adames to make it 4-0, to start the bottom of the fourth. Verlander got two more outs before issuing his third walk to Choi in as many innings, which his ended his night. Verlander lasted 3 23 innings, gave up two homers, four runs, seven hits, walked three, and struck out five.

The second-shortest start of his postseason career—and longest that wasn’t shortened due to rain—wasn’t what the Astros were expecting from Verlander, who entered tonight 8-0 in his career in the ALDS.

Divisional Series - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Four Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

But, again, he kept his team within striking distance and the loss isn’t really on him. The Astros offense was abymsal in St. Petersburg, as has often been the case in recent years, and did nothing to resemble the squad that led the Astros to a club-record 107 wins.

Josh James gave up an infield single to Avisail Garcia in relief of Verlander before striking out Brandon Lowe to end the inning.

The Astros finally got on the board when Robinson Chirinos hit a two-out solo homer in the eighth to make it 4-1.

Houston threatened to tie the game in the ninth inning with runners at first and third and only one out for Alvarez. But the Rays brought in last year’s Cy Young winner Blake Snell to face the rookie slugger, who struck out on a pitch in the dirt for the second out. Gurriel scalded a ball past Snell but Adames was shifted into perfect position to make the play and end the game.

The Astros’ bullpen mostly did a nice job keeping things close. Jose Urquidy allowed three hits and a walk in 1 23 innings but also struck out three. Ryan Pressly got the final out of the sixth inning and Joe Smith tossed a six-pitch, 1-2-3 seventh inning, the first of its kind for Astros’ pitchers all night.

Will Harris gave up two hits and struck out two in a scoreless eighth inning.

The Rays used six pitchers in all Tuesday night. Snell’s save occurred in the first relief appearance of his career, a rarity when that happens in the postseason.

So now we wait until Thursday. Here’s a few tidbits to occupy you in the meantime.

The Rays have fared well in recent road elimination games.

Teams that have trailed 0-2 and forced a Game 5 have also generally experienced positive outcomes in their series.

Though the Rays were one of the few clubs to not pull off the feat.

Coincidentally, no team that won 105+games in the regular season has lost a postseason series after leading 2-0.

Ok, that’s enough torture for now.

Box score and videos here.

Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50) will get the start in the winner-take-all Game 5 for the Astros. Cole went 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park and struck out a postseason franchise-record 15 batters. He led the AL in ERA and MLB in strikeouts (326) this season and went 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA at Minute Maid Park in 2019. He will be opposed by Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.78), the Rays’ Game 1 starter. Glasnow gave up two runs on four hits and three walks over 4 2/3 innings in Friday’s 6-2 victory for Houston. First pitch for Game 5 will be Thursday evening at 6:07 CT and will air on FS1.