HOUSTON — Even though they were down two runs in the fifth inning and in the phrasing of manager Kevin Cash getting “Verlandered,’’ the Rays still felt things were looking up in Friday’s opening game of the AL Division Series.
Until a pop-up by Yuli Gurriel came crashing down in shallow right field later in the inning, glancing off the glove of second baseman Brandon Lowe and landing in front of Austin Meadows, to score two more Houston runs, and ground any legit hopes of a Rays comeback with it.
By the end of the afternoon, the Rays had a few other things to regret and bemoan in the 6-2 loss.
“We have a long way to go,’’ left fielder Tommy Pham said.
More urgently, by nature of a best-of-five series, they are suddenly facing the reality of having to beat the Astros’ other ace, Gerrit Cole, on Saturday night (9:07 p.m., FS1) to avoid pushing their season right back to the brink of playing win-or-go-home games.
There were several elements Friday that put them in this predicament.
* Justin Verlander was, as usual, on his game, holding the Rays without a hit into the fifth and allowing only the one single through seven dominant innings.
“He was doing what Justin Verlander does,’’ Meadows said.
* In an overall impressive outing, Rays starter Tyler Glasnow had one bad sequence, walking No. 9 hitter Josh Reddick to start the fifth then throwing a (relatively) high fastball to Jose Altuve, who mashed it over the leftfield wall for the 2-0 lead.
“Hindsight I would go back and change some things, but can’t do anything about it now,’’ he said.
* Rookie Brendan McKay, added to the roster to work in the unfamiliar role of situational reliever, put the Astros in position to take advantage of the outfield misplay. He allowed a single to lefty Michael Brantley and, staying with lefty Yordan Alvarez due up third, a double off the left-field wall to Alex Bregman, the Astros’ MVP candidate, on the fifth straight fastball he threw him.
“Obviously it was a tough situation,’’ McKay said. “The pitch was where I wanted it. Obviously that’s a short wall in left field; in the majority of ballparks that’s an out.’’ McKay did strike out Alvarez, the likely AL rookie of the year, and Chaz Roe looked to have them out of the inning when he got Yuli Gurriel to hit the pop-up to right, but that didn’t work out.
* A two-out walk by Oliver Drake in the seventh, and another catch Meadows didn’t make on a ball on a ball hit into the corner, led to two more runs. That stretched the 4-0 deficit to 6-0, and making the comeback the Rays finally staged in the eighth off reliever Ryan Pressly not enough.
But the key play was the one the Rays didn’t make in right field.
“The turning point of the game,’’ Cash said. “2-0 to 4-0 is a big gap when you’re talking about that guy being on the mound.’’
Both Lowe and Meadows, two of the Rays All-Stars, took the blame as they took repeated questions at their lockers, both acknowledging there was some uncertainty and that the noise from the roaring crowd of 43,360 under the Minute Maid Park roof was a factor.
As the outfielder coming in, Meadows said he should have made the catch.
“It was a tough play for Brandon to go back and try to get that so I’ve got to take charge there and I just didn’t,’’ Meadows said. “Obviously that was a critical point of the game and I think I definitely should have caught that ball, but it is what it is.’’
As the infielder who was tracking the ball going out, Lowe said he should have completed the play.
“I’ve got to catch it, plain and simple,’’ Lowe said. "I called it, and I dropped it. Next time I have to got to keep going for it and make a play on it.’’
What was clear was that it amplified the momentum the Astros had.
“We all recognize that that’s got to be an out,’’ Cash said.
So did the Astros.
“In a playoff game, two runs feels like four runs,’’ Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “When you get the extra opportunity and they make a mistake, and we're a tough team to make a mistake against and get away with it, I thought our guys did a really good job of continuing that.’’
Maybe the Rays are clutching onto a false narrative here, that even the 2-0 deficit might have been enough the way Verlander was dealing, and taking advantage of a wide strike zone to log eight strikeouts, the first seven-plus innings outing of one-hit ball in a postseason game since 2012 (Bronson Arroyo).
Just like they were talking after the game about how the two runs they scored in the eighth — hits by Joey Wendle, Eric Sogard and Meadows, and with a chance for more until Ji-Man Choi grounded out with runners on the corners — will give them momentum that carries into Saturday night’s game.
Having come this far, they’ve got to have hope, right?
So there’s also this.
The Rays opened this season in March getting shutdown by Verlander in a 5-1 loss then came back and beat the Astros three straight.
“We can beat this team,’’ Wendle said. “We’ve played them eight times (this season) and we’ve beat then four times. So it’s a pretty even series to date.’’
They’ve got to get even Saturday night.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.