HOUSTON — In detailing the many challenges facing the Rays as they advance to AL Division Series play Friday afternoon against a 107-win Houston team considered a favorite to win the World Series, it’s hard not to start with the starting pitching.
Specifically the three starters the Astros will use to open the best-of-five series: Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke.
Combined this year, they are 59-16 with a 2.67 ERA and 813 strikeouts in 644 innings (including what Greinke did before the July 31 trade from Arizona). They have long ledgers of past success (with either Verlander or Cole expected to add another Cy Young award this year) and plenty of postseason experience.
“There’s no doubt,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said Thursday, “that their starting pitchers are dominant.’’
But the Rays have reasons they feel they are up to the challenge.
Not letting their reputations precede them
The Rays have seen the three Astros aces before, including a three-game late August series in Houston they started in the same sequence.
The Rays lost the games Verlander and Cole started before beating Greinke, but felt pretty good overall about how they handled them then and in the past (also facing Verlander and Cole to start the season). They realize they can have success against them and know they’re not untouchable.
“Bob Gibson is retired,’’ Rays outfielder Tommy Pham said.
Sure Verlander will be pumping heat Friday afternoon and Minute Maid Park will be jumping but the Rays say they’ll act like they’ve been there and done well.
“We’ve faced them before,’’ infielder Joey Wendle said, “We know what they’re featuring. We know they’re going to come right at us with their best stuff with the expectation they’re going to do what they’ve done all year.
“We have to come in with the expectation that we’ll do what we’ve done all year, and find a way to win some baseball games. … I don’t think there’s any wow factor or anything like that.’’
A simple plan
The Rays weren’t running their computers overtime trying to figure out a new way to approach or attack the talented trio.
If anything, hitting coach Chad Mottola said, they don’t look at the numbers too much because they “won’t be finding too many positive things’’ in there.
“There’s no secret formula,’’ he said. “There isn’t anybody who has to step up more than anyone else.’’
The Rays lineup likely will have a familiar look, with lefty swingers Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe and Wendle back in there as usual against tough right-handers.
Other than that, the Rays see it as just a matter of doing much differently.
“We've just got to go out there and have good at-bats,’’ Cash said. “When any of these guys happen to make a mistake or lack an executed pitch, we've got to be ready for it.’’
But there are some specifics areas of concentration.
Noting the Astros led the majors with 1,671 strikeouts, the Rays have to be a little more protective of the strike zone.
“We’re going to have to do a better job of putting the ball in play because if we continue to make a lot of outs via the strikeout then it’s going to be easier for them,’’ Pham said. “So controlling the strike zone is going to be crucial in this series for us offensively.
“They tend to like to throw that high fastball because they can, Verlander and Cole and pumping 95-100 so that’s a tough pitch to hit at that velocity. We’re going to have to do a better job of getting on top of that pitch and putting it in play and not chasing the balls down in the dirt or above the strike zone.’’
Trust your teammates
The Rays, who’ve won the season series 4-3 three straight years, feel the task of beating the Astros aces is easier because of the pitchers they’ll be running out to the mound from a staff that led the AL with a 3.65 team ERA, with the Astros second at 3.66.
The goal, after all, is just to finish with one more run than them and with Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell starting the first two games (albeit still with limited workloads) and veteran, and Astros folk hero, Charlie Morton in Game 3 — plus their talented bullpen arms rested and ready — they like their chances.
“Our pitching staff allows us to relax knowing we don’t have to go and knock Verlander out of the game, we don’t have to go and knock Cole out of the game,’’ Mottola said. “All we have to do is string a couple hits together then play our defense and let our pitchers do the work they’ve done all year.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
Rays-Astros AL Division Series schedule
Game 1: Friday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 2 p.m. (FS1)
Game 2: Saturday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 9 p.m. (FS1)
Game 3: Monday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (MLBN/FS1)
*Game 4: Tuesday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (FS1)
*Game 5: Oct. 10: Tampa Bay at Houston, TBD (FS1)