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Astros versus Rays: ALCS Inside the Numbers Preview

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Although a rematch of last year’s ALDS, both clubs feature some key differences.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As soon as Ryan Pressly shut the door on the Oakland Athletics, sending the Houston Astros to their fourth consecutive American League Championship Series, a rematch was guaranteed. The only question was: would it be the “sexy” repeat of an Astros/Yankees ALCS that baseball fans were treated to in 2017 and 2019, or another matchup against the scary Tampa Bay Rays, a team that nearly ended Houston’s season in a five-game ALDS last year.

On Friday night, Mike Brosseau launched a dramatic go-ahead solo homer off Aroldis Chapman (sound familiar) in the eighth, Diego Castillo threw nothing but darts in the final two innings, and the franchise previously known as the Devil Rays upended the Yankees 2-1 in a winner-take-all Game 5. Tampa Bay will remain in the San Diego bubble to “host” the Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS at 6:37 p.m. CT on Sunday at Petco Park.

So, good news for Houston fans: after the Texans inevitably find a way to lose to the Jaguars on Sunday and drop to 0-5, the Astros will await at night to maybe cure your woes.

The Rays are making their second ALCS appearance after having been in their pennant-winning campaign of 2008. They were on the short end of the stick in 2018, winning 90 games but finishing well behind the Red Sox and Yankees. Tampa Bay reached the playoffs last year, winning the Wild Card Game at Oakland before dropping the aforementioned hard-fought series to the Astros. The Rays were hardly challenged in the AL East in this 60-game campaign, finishing 40-20 and easily capturing the top seed in the American League. They dispatched the Blue Jays without trouble in the first round before a battle for the ages against the Yankees over the last five days.

Tampa Bay is a club that has taken an unconventional approach to winning a lot of baseball games. They mix and match as it best fits the matchup, using a different lineup in 59 of 60 games in the regular season. If you don’t like who they have out there on a certain night, just wait a few minutes and manager Kevin Cash will likely throw out three pinch-hitters in a row. It’s the way the Rays roll, and their pitching philosophy embodies this as well. They used 12 different starting pitchers, frequently going to the “opener” strategy and flip-flopping arms between the rotation and bullpen all year long.

These teams have not met since a year ago to the day, when Gerrit Cole outpitched Tyler Glasnow in Game 5 at Minute Maid Park. Coincidentally, those same two hurlers opposed one another in the Rays’ victory on Friday.

Despite the vastly different approaches from the Astros and Rays, the two teams match up quite well and it should be a fascinating series.

A friendly reminder that the “advantages” at each position are opinions only, so don’t get too carried away.

Catcher

Martin Maldonado’s postseason stat line in 2020 is not eye-popping, but he has gotten the job done. He has started all six games in the playoffs and is 3-for-21 with a home run, a blast that proved critical in Houston’s 5-2 victory over Oakland in Game 2 of the ALDS. Maldonado also threw out Stephen Piscotty trying to advance on a ball in the dirt in that contest, a crucial rally-killer as the A’s were attempting to gain momentum. He has also done an exceptional job calling pitches for hot young arms such as Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez and Enoli Paredes, who have all become different pitchers this postseason. Maldonado was 2-for-5 in the first-round victory over the Rays last October.

The bulk of the time at catcher for Tampa Bay goes to Mike Zunino, with Michael Perez also contributing when called upon. Zunino is just 3-for-19 this postseason but two of the hits are home runs. Perez only has five at-bats in the playoffs but has picked up a pair of knocks, including a long ball in a Game 3 victory over the Yankees.

Advantage: Rays. Having two catchers with pop is a rare commodity, but Tampa Bay has exactly that luxury with Perez and Zunino. If the Astros exploit Zunion’s weakness by offering a steady dose of breaking balls, it is likely Kevin Cash will turn to Perez, especially to get his left-handed bat in there against righties.

First Base

At Dodger Stadium this week, seemingly the entire Astros lineup was hotter than the California fires of the summer and fall, the one player who has remained in a slump is Yuli Gurriel. He was just 1-for-15 against Oakland and has a total of two hits in this playoff run. Gurriel came on strong against the Rays last year, going 6-for-19 with four runs batted in.

Ji-Man Choi is 4-for-18 in seven games this postseason, including a home run off Gerrit Cole. This comes after a 3-for-15 showing against the Astros in last year’s first round with a long ball and seven walks taken. Choi is normally a left-handed hitter, but don’t let that fool you, he sometimes has a trick up his sleeve.

Advantage: Rays. Even with his low batting average, Choi has looked more comfortable than Gurriel in his at-bats during the playoffs. Choi’s discerning eye also makes him a tough out, as he showed with his seven free passes in the 2019 ALCS, while Gurriel has only been the recipient of one walk in the postseason

Second Base

Remember that horrific, uncharacteristic stretch Jose Altuve was in? That was so 2020, and he is now in future time, perhaps? We can only hope the rest of the world is in for a turnaround like Altuve started to show in the ALDS. He had six hits in 15 at-bats against the A’s, with two of them being home runs. Altuve has gone deep in the last two games, including a two-run shot in the seventh inning yesterday that effectively sent Oakland home for the winter. His fourth inning plate appearance in Game 4 might have been the turning point of the afternoon, taking multiple borderline pitches that were called balls, including the offering he ended up walking on. In the 2019 ALDS, Altuve turned into a Rays killer, going deep three times. He homered off Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, two he will certainly see on multiple occasions this week.

Brandon Lowe homered against the Astros in last year’s postseason, but he has simply been overmatched on the biggest stage this time around. Lowe is 0-for-18 with seven strikeouts against the Blue Jays and Yankees. We shall see if he continues to bat second or if Cash moves him down in the order to take some pressure off.

Advantage: Astros. Altuve appears to be back, and that should be very scary for the Rays’ pitching staff. He torched them a year ago, raked against the A’s this weekend, so the momentum is on his side.

Third Base

Alex Bregman sizzled in the early October California sunshine, going 6-for-15 in the previous series. The Astros trailed 3-0 in the opener when Bregman stepped in and launched a leadoff home run to left field in the fourth inning, igniting a comeback. He has walked four times in the playoffs with only one punchout, mirroring his 2018 postseason when he drew 11 free passes against four strikeouts. Bregman’s one playoff home run against the Rays last year came on Oct. 5 (surprise, surprise, he has homered four years in a row on that date) against Blake Snell.

The main reason the Rays are still playing is Mike Brosseau, who actually didn’t start a game in the division series. But it is hard to leave someone out of a series preview after he hits an eventual-game winning home run in the eighth inning. The right-handed stick of Brosseau had subbed into the game for lefty bat Joey Wendle, which is standard operating procedure for the Rays based on matchups against the bullpen. Brosseau is 4-for-8 this postseason, while Wendle has produced as well, going 6-for-19 with two walks. Wendle was the only one of the two to receive substantial playing time in the ALDS last October and Astros pitching held him to a 2-for-10 showing.

Slight Advantage: Astros. The seasoned Bregman is cooking once again, having just taken out frustrations from a tough September on seemingly the entire Oakland pitching staff. Brosseau and Wendle have been clutch, but experience could play a key role here.

Shortstop

Aside from Giancarlo Stanton and maybe Randy Arozarena, no hitter in baseball is more en fuego than Carlos Correa is right now. He was 3-for-6 with a key go-ahead homer in helping the Astros sweep the Twins, then went 10-for-20, homered three times and drove in a whopping 11 runs against the A’s at Chavez Ravine. Correa’s two-run shot in the fourth inning of Game 1 brought Houston even, then he absolutely demolished a Frankie Montas pitch for a go-ahead three-run blast in the same frame in Game 4, giving his team an advantage they never relinquished. To put Correa’s offensive surge in perspective, he was one of the Astros’ most productive hitters in the regular season yet did not reach 11 RBI until Aug. 17. In a very unusual turn of events, Correa scuffled through the 2019 playoffs, including a 3-for-19 effort against the Rays.

Slick-fielding Willy Adames has always been reliable defensively, but his bat has regressed in 2020, particularly in the playoffs. He has just three hits in seven contests just far, batting in the bottom half of the lineup. However, Adames had a stellar series against the Astros last year, homering twice and converting a perfect relay throw to the plate in a Game 4 victory for Tampa Bay.

Advantage: Astros. Correa is having fun playing baseball again, and his enthusiasm was evident in the series win over Oakland, continually firing up the dugout as he trotted down to first base after belting the ball out of the ballpark. He has always come through when his team needs him, and there is no change in sight.

Left Field

A great mystery of late is trying to figure out who Dusty Baker will slot in left on his lineup card. Kyle Tucker started more games there than any player in the regular season, yet he and Michael Brantley each got the nod twice against Oakland. For kicks and giggles, let’s say Brantley is the left fielder, even though it is likely to flip-flop multiple times throughout the ALCS. Nothing has changed in the playoffs for Brantley, who is 9-for-26 with a pair of doubles and long balls in six contests. Both of the home runs came Thursday afternoon, a two-run shot in the fourth that ignited Houston’s offensive barrage, then a solo blast in the fifth to begin a steady dose of what turned into blowout city late. The Rays pitching staff did a nice job of limiting the explosive Brantley as they held him to four hits in last year’s series, but one of them was a solo homer.

Cuban defector Randy Arozarena has turned into one of the best stories in all of sports over the last six weeks. It appeared unlikely he would even figure into the Rays’ plans for 2020 after continually testing positive for COVID, a process that lasted nearly a month. Arozarena finally made his season debut on Aug. 30 and came on strong in September with seven long balls. He has turned it up to another level in the postseason, going 12-for-27 with six extra-base hits, including three long balls. Arozarena homered in each of the first three contests against the Yankees and has established himself as Tampa Bay’s number three hitter.

Slight Advantage: Rays. The attention Arozarena is receiving has not seemed to get to his head, as he has remained businesslike and focused on the task at hand. Brantley has been locked in as usual, but Arozarena’s story is too hard to overlook, especially with the way he has mashed in the late summer and fall.

Center Field

A man who has always come up huge in October is George Springer, and his two-homer game on Tuesday proved that more than one thing can remain normal in this strangest of years. He has eight hits in 27 combined at-bats against the Twins and A’s, but something that will be critical is if he is able to utilize plate discipline more often. After drawing 12 walks last postseason, Springer has yet to take a free pass in this year’s run. One of his worst playoff series came in 2019 against Tampa Bay, going 3-for-21 without an extra-base hit in five contests.

Another huge swing in the Rays/Yankees series came off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier, who launched a go-ahead three-run blast in the fourth inning of Game 3. He is 5-for-24 this postseason and continues to exhibit his terrific fly-chasing skills in the outfield. Kiermaier also homered against the Astros last year, a three-run shot off Zack Greinke in the first of two consecutive games the Rays won to keep their season going.

Advantage: Astros. Kiermaier has come up with a couple of dramatic October moments in recent memory, but it still pales in comparison to Springer. Much like Altuve and Correa, Springer once again appears to have a swagger about him, and the way the ball jumps off his bat should instill fears for any opposing pitcher.

Right Field

Kyle Tucker and Josh Reddick split time at the position in the division series, but the catch Reddick made in Game 4 just might give him the edge in terms of who starts. With the Astros trailing 3-0 and staring a winner-take-all game right in the face, Reddick lept at the right-field fence to take away a home run from Matt Olson. Reddick has never hit in the postseason (.205 in 67 career games and 3-for-19 this year), but outfield defense this year can be vital in determining a champion. Just ask Nelson Cruz. Sorry, Ranger fans. Reddick recorded just one knock in ten at-bats against Tampa Bay pitching last fall.

Many players coming off terrific 2019 campaigns took a nosedive in this very unusual campaign, including Austin Meadows. The centerpiece of the Chris Archer deal in 2018 limped to a .205 average this year after hitting .291 with 33 home runs and receiving American League Rookie of the Year votes a season ago. Over the last two postseasons, Meadows is just 5-for-36, but one of the hits proved to be one of the biggest in Rays history. He took Cole deep for a two-out solo blast in the fifth inning on Friday, tying the contest at a run apiece. Baseball fans know very well that unsung heroes appear every single year in postseason play, and Meadows did his part to keep Tampa Bay’s season alive.

Advantage: Tie. It is no secret both Reddick and Meadows need to hit, but each is coming off a clutch moment in their respective squad’s clinching victory. This one is just too close to call based on recent performances.

Designated Hitter

After process of elimination, let’s go with Kyle Tucker as the projected designated hitter for the bulk of this series. Question number one: why do opposing teams continue to shift against Tucker? Not that Astro fans will ever complain about it, but he has multiple knocks in the playoffs that have gone against the defensive position Minnesota or Oakland has put on him by placing three infielders on the right of second base. In total, Tucker is 10-for-25 with four RBI in six postseason contests although he has yet to pick up an extra-base hit.

This is a spot that figures to split evenly between Yandy Diaz and Yoshi Tsutsugo depending on matchups, as Diaz bats right-handed and vice-versa for Tsutsugo. Diaz has actually faced the Astros in each of the last two postseasons, going 1-for-3 with a double as a member of the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS. Diaz was then traded to Tampa Bay and was hitless in nine at-bats in the first round against Houston last year. Although Diaz only has one hit so far this postseason, he has walked six times and is not an easy out. With a pitcher like Framber Valdez on the mound, it is possible Diaz might hit leadoff and Meadows could move down.

Tsutsugo made his MLB debut in July after coming over from Japan in the offseason, so he will be facing Houston for the first time. He hit .197 with eight home runs in the regular season and has yet to reach base in the playoffs.

Advantage: Astros. The left-handed bat of Tucker has been sizzling since a trip to the Mile High City in late August, and he has a knack for delivering no matter the situation. Tampa Bay is incredibly analytics-oriented so expect a lot more shifting against Tucker, which has been no problem for him.

Starting Pitchers

Like many hurlers in the four games at Dodger Stadium, Lance McCullers Jr. suffered from a brief spell of gopher-ball-itis, but he should be recovered and ready to go for this series. McCullers surrendered three long balls in Game 1 of the Oakland series and was visibly frustrated after one in particular. He is a warrior, pitching in the 2018 playoffs after he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament, so there is reason to believe he will bounce back at Petco Park.

The ascension of Framber Valdez has been something else this year. Had there been a minor league season, the lefty would have likely been in a Round Rock Express uniform for a good portion of the year, but it was important not to waste a full season of his development once MiLB was shuttered for 2020. He worked out the kinks in the regular season (finishing with a 3.57 ERA) but has been something else in the playoffs. Valdez worked five scoreless innings of relief to earn the victory in Game 1 against the Twins, then he handcuffed an explosive A’s lineup on Tuesday to the tune of five hits and two runs in seven sharp frames.

Zack Greinke appears healthy after a brief scare and lines up to start Game 3 on Tuesday if he works on normal rest. Greinke’s five-hit, four-run outing over 4.2 innings against the A’s can be attributed to the warm Southern California air as much as the fact he went eight days between outings. Regardless, the Astros will need him to be sharper in his next start.

With possibly seven consecutive games without an off-day, both teams are likely to use four different starting pitchers in this series. Postseason stud Jose Urquidy appears to be a logical choice for Wednesday’s Game 4. He had been absolutely untouchable prior to his last outing, when the A’s got him for four solo homers in 4.1 frames. However, Urquidy has a tidy 2.89 ERA in six career playoff appearances, heroic for a 25-year old who has already undergone Tommy John Surgery and had never pitched above the now defunct High-A Buies Creek Astros prior to last year.

Even with playing five games in five days, the Rays have the luxury of their ace ready on full rest to start the opener. Blake Snell was warming up in the bullpen as Friday’s game reached its conclusion but was never needed. The 2018 AL Cy Young winner worked three times against the Astros in last year’s division series, twice out of the bullpen. Snell allowed just one run (a Bregman homer) and fanned seven. The southpaw was touched up in Game 1 against the Yankees, surrendering three long balls in five frames.

The man who was on the mound when the Astros clinched the 2017 title is now on the other side. Charlie Morton has been stellar for the last two seasons, two in Houston and the last two in a Tampa Bay uniform. Morton beat the Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS last year with five innings of one-run ball and nine strikeouts, before handcuffing the Yankees on a very similar line in the third contest of their series. If all goes according to plan, Morton will get the ball in the second game on Monday afternoon.

Game 3 will probably fall in the hands of an opener for the Rays. There are many possibilities Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder could lean on, likely Ryan Yarbrough or John Curtiss. Yarbrough has allowed two runs in five innings this postseason after posting a 3.56 ERA in the regular season, while Curtiss was nearly spotless, going 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in a campaign where he started three games and also recorded two saves. Hey, it’s the Rays way. Curtiss’ introduction to playoff baseball was not a kind one, as he surrendered a grand slam to Giancarlo Stanton as part of a five-run ninth inning that put Game 1 to bed.

Tyler Glasnow used every bullet possible in the second round, starting against New York twice in a span of four days. He threw a total of 130 pitches across 7.1 innings and allowed just three hits, two of which left the yard. If Glasnow is ready to come back on normal rest, his next turn would come in Game 4. He lasted just 4.1 frames in the opener of last year’s ALDS, allowed two runs and ended up taking the loss as Justin Verlander dominated on the other side.

Slight Advantage: Astros. Starting pitching has been a strength of this team all year. Having Greinke and McCullers for possibly two starts each in a seven-game series is key, while the youngsters Valdez and Urquidy seem to tune up their game a notch once the postseason arrives. Tampa Bay’s rotation is nearly equally formidable, but a big factor is this is the latest into October any of them have pitched except Morton. This year is different in the sense pitchers aren’t tiring after working non-stop for nearly eight months, but the emotional and mental toll the 2020 season has taken on everyone could prove to be a tough task for a relatively young staff.

Relief Pitchers

It is hard to put into word the turnaround by the Astros bullpen this postseason. They simply...well, sucked, for most of the regular season, finishing in the bottom half of baseball in many categories.

But it is a new season for them now. In six postseason games, they have allowed just 16 hits and seven runs in 25.2 innings across six postseason games. Even that doesn’t tell the full story, because five of those tallies came across late in Game 3 against Oakland. Arms such as Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes and Andre Scrubb have emerged with brand-new confidence. Javier, for instance, has fanned eight batters in 6.1 frames across three playoff outings and can easily last multiple innings. Southpaw Blake Taylor is one who has been strong since the beginning, finishing with a 2.18 ERA in 20 regular-season appearances and has yet to allow a run in the playoffs. After saving 12 of the Astros’ 29 wins before this miracle happened, Ryan Pressly closed out two of three victories against Oakland.

The Rays bullpen, affectionately known as the “Tampa Bay 98ers,” lives up to their expectation as nearly every arm who enters features extreme heat. Nick Anderson is not a name well-known in the baseball world as of yet but has been one of the best relievers in the sport this year. He fanned 26 batters in 16.1 innings during the regular season (oh yeah, he only gave up one earned run), and has been nearly as effective in the playoffs while being used for more length. The aforementioned Curtiss and Yarbrough are likely to be seen out of the bullpen as well as the rotation. Pete Fairbanks is a probable to be on the mound late in the game in a key spot, as was seen when he retired Aaron Judge for the final out in a tense Game 2. Fairbanks was not among the 12 (!) different pitchers to save a game for Tampa Bay in the regular season, so naturally he has racked up a pair in the playoffs. The movement of Diego Castillo’s slider in the final two innings of Game 5 was filthy, as he struck out four Yankees and ended up closing out the clincher. Castillo worked in three games against the Astros in last year’s ALDS (including as an opener) and did not allow a run.

Advantage: Rays. Even with the strong emergence of several previous underperforming Astros relief pitchers, this Tampa Bay bullpen is a fearsome group and it remains to be seen if Houston will have success against them. But the same thing was said about Oakland, so stay tuned.

The fun begins again Sunday evening at Petco Park, with Monday’s Game 2 scheduled for 3:07 p.m. CT. The rest of the starting times are to be announced and TBS will carry the duration of the series.