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Astros-Rays ALCS: What you need to know

by Chris Brown

Thanks to this year’s expanded playoff format, the Houston Astros qualified for the postseason despite a 29-31 record, their worst winning percentage (.483) in six seasons. Now they’re set to play in the ALCS for the fourth straight year.

The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, tallied the most wins in the American League this season and the second-most in MLB, yet still entered the postseason as a perceived underdog with few widely-recognized star players. Now they’re set to play in the ALCS for the first time since 2008. 

Following Houston’s four-game ALDS victory over the A’s and Tampa Bay’s incredible Game 5 win against the Yankees, the Astros and Rays will meet in the League Championship Series beginning Sunday, Oct. 11, with a spot in the World Series on the line.

Let’s break down four things you should know heading into the American League Championship Series:

Who: Houston Astros vs. Tampa Bay Rays

When: (Game 1) Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, 7:37 p.m. ET

Where: Petco Park, San Diego, CA

How to watch/listen: TBS, ESPN Radio

1. The Astros’ bats have come alive in the postseason.

Much of Houston’s core group of star hitters underperformed offensive expectations during the regular season, with Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve posting the worst OPS marks of their big-league careers and Alex Bregman logging his worst OPS since his rookie year. As a team, the Astros ranked 14th in runs, 16th in OPS and 19th in home runs in baseball during the regular season. With Gerrit Cole in New York, Justin Verlander out for most of the year and a myriad of bullpen injuries, it’s not difficult to understand the Astros’ regular season struggles given all those factors combined. 

With a weak AL West outside of the A’s helping Houston capture the second spot in the division standings, the big question for this team entering the playoffs was what version of the Astros offense were we going to see in October. Through two series against top-tier pitching teams it’s been the elite version once again. 

Carlos Correa is on an absolute tear at the plate, picking up a hit in half his at-bats this postseason with four homers, 12 RBI and a 1.715 OPS. His 15 career playoff homers are second among shortstops in MLB history behind only Derek Jeter (20). Altuve, George Springer and Michael Brantley all have two longballs and Bregman is hitting .318 this postseason. The Astros’ 12 home runs in the ALDS is now tied with the A’s 12 homers in the same series for the most ever by a team in a postseason series of five games or fewer. After scoring 25 total runs in 10 regular season games against Oakland this year (hitting .206), Houston tallied 33 in four games (hitting .322) in the ALDS. That sums up the team’s offensive flip of the switch more than anything.

Making the Astros’ recent offensive success more impressive is that it came against the pitching staffs with the fourth and fifth-best ERAs in the majors this year. Houston’s offense forced A’s manager Bob Melvin to turn to his bullpen early in every game. The road doesn’t get any easier with the Rays ranking third in ERA this season.

2. Houston’s pitching has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Dusty Baker managed a young, inexperienced bullpen exceptionally well in his club’s series against the A’s, as four rookies contributed to a solid 3.94 reliever ERA. Twenty-three-year-old Cristian Javier, a starter for most of the regular season, has been outstanding in relief in the postseason, tossing 6 ⅓ scoreless frames with eight strikeouts and logging two victories. Lefty Framber Valdez has also impressed, throwing a team-high 12 postseason innings with a 1.50 ERA. He’ll get the ball in Game 1 of the ALCS.

Houston’s pitching hasn’t all been great, though, as indicated by the club’s 5.25 ERA in the division series. Veteran Zack Greinke, the leader of the team’s rotation this season, had his ALDS start pushed back to Game 4 due to arm tightness and then proceeded to yield four runs in 4 ⅔ innings. Lance McCullers’ lone playoff outing resulted in five runs (four earned) in four innings while Jose Urquidy has a 5.19 ERA in two starts. 

In a best-of-seven ALCS against a team that hit 11 homers in the ALDS, Houston is going to need more than just a few pitchers firing on all cylinders in the ALCS to topple the AL’s No. 1 seed. Without their aces of recent postseasons, Greinke and McCullers’ effectiveness could very well prove crucial in this series for the Astros.

3. Mike Brosseau’s revenge homer vs. Aroldis Chapman is just one example of relative unknowns rising to the occasion in an underrated Rays lineup.

There were 1,216 players selected in the 2016 MLB Draft. Mike Brosseau was not one of them. Seemingly no player on the Rays’ roster embodies the organization’s underdog, development-minded mentality than Brosseau, who delivered the game-winning hit in Game 5 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay. After Aroldis Chapman threw a fastball behind the head of Brosseau back on Sept. 1, sparking a benches-clearing ending to that game, Brosseau got his revenge, homering off the star Yankees closer on a 100 mph fastball in the eighth inning to send the Rays to the league championship.

With Giancarlo Stanton swatting home runs night after night, the sizzling Yankees offense didn’t completely collapse in the series. In a series with the highest rate of runs scored via homers (in a 3+ games series) in MLB postseason history, it was the Rays, the club with the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball, that out-homered the Bronx Bombers. Tampa Bay hit just .202 in the series, but they made their hits count against a Yankees team whose less than ideal pitching depth let them down.

Despite going 0 for his last seven at the plate, Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena has homered 10 times in 30 games since being promoted to the majors on Aug. 30, with three of those longballs coming in the playoffs. Arozarena has looked like one of the best hitters on the planet in his seven postseason games this year, logging 12 hits in 27 at-bats (.444 AVG) with those three homers as well as one triple, two doubles and six singles. 

Also contributing offensively for the Rays this postseason have been outfielders Manuel Margot (2 HR, 5 RBI) and Austin Meadows (2 HR), third baseman Joey Wendle (.316 AVG) and catchers Mike Zunino and Michael Perez, who’ve combined for three playoff homers. With the exception of Arozarena, though, no one Rays player is going on an incredible postseason run. In typical Rays fashion, the club’s offensive success is coming from timely hits and contributions from throughout the lineup.

4. The Rays’ pitching was the difference in their series win against the Yankees.

With all due credit to Brosseau and the other hitters mentioned above, the Rays pitching, particularly its bullpen, was the biggest key to Tampa Bay’s ALDS win against the Yankees. The Yankees still scored a decent amount of runs in the series, yes, but that’s an incredible offense which the Rays held to three or fewer runs in three games and never scored more than five runs. Short of the Yankees’ offense completely falling flat, the ALDS was not too far from the best-case scenario for Tampa Bay from a pitching perspective.

Nothing illustrated that success more than the decisive Game 5, in which Kevin Cash devised and executed a pitching plan with pinpoint precision, and his bullpen full of electric arms came through with flying colors. Pitching on just two days rest, Tyler Glasnow got the call as the team’s opener, firing 2 ⅔ innings of scoreless ball before turning things over to a lights out bullpen.

Three relievers — closer Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo — each threw between two and three innings, never facing a Yankees hitter more than once and combining to allow just one run on three hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. It was the first time since 1988 and just the second time ever that a team has had four pitchers throw 2+ innings and won a nine-inning postseason game.

“Are you surprised?” Anderson asked reporters after Game 5. “This is kind of the Rays way: switch things up, do something a little different. Everyone is on board, everyone knows anything can happen.”

Tampa Bay will bring that outstanding bullpen and a trio of experienced starters — Glasnow, Charlie Morton and Blake Snell — into the ALCS against an Astros team that looks unstoppable offensively right now. Which aspect, Houston’s offense or the Rays’ pitching, wins out will likely determine the winner of this series.

Photos by Roy Luck / Flickr (Altuve), All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Choi), Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons (Springer), All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Arozarena)

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