Rays fall 3-1 to Houston, on the brink of elimination

For the second straight game, Tampa Bay was done in by a dominant pitching performance
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) walks back to the dugout after striking out in the first inning against the Houston Astros in Game 2 of the American League Division Series Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019 in Houston.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) walks back to the dugout after striking out in the first inning against the Houston Astros in Game 2 of the American League Division Series Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019 in Houston. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 6, 2019|Updated Oct. 6, 2019

HOUSTON — This time, the Rays got Coled.

Or, more appropriately, K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-Koled.

Striking out 15 times against Astros starter Gerrit Cole was clear evidence the Rays couldn’t do much right Saturday night.

Combined with a couple things the Rays did wrong, the result was a 3-1 loss to the Astros in Game 2 of the division series, and a daunting task ahead.

The teams are off Sunday, with the best-of-five series resuming, and potentially ending, with a 1:05 p.m. Game 3 Monday at Tropicana Field. Charlie Morton will start for the Rays with their season on the brink, Zack Greinke for the Astros.

Of the 50 teams that have lost the first two games of a best-of-five series on the road, only seven have come back to win.

"We’re obviously disappointed down two games to zero,'' centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "They’ve just been a little bit better so far. (Justin) Verlander threw great (Friday), Cole was about as dominant as you can get (Saturday). Our pitchers threw the ball great they just came up with a few more his than us.''

"We’re capable of playing a really good game on Monday and see where that takes us,'' manager Kevin Cash said,

Saturday’s game looked initially a lot like Friday’s series opener, with the two starters dueling through the early innings.

Also similar, the Rays pitcher made the first mistake, as Blake Snell gave up a homer to Astros MVP candidate Alex Bregman leading off the fourth on a full-count pitch after being ahead 0-2.

"It’s frustrating,'' Snell said.

The Rays played some dazzling defense, but an error by shortstop Willy Adames led to another Houston run in the seventh.

Yuli Gurriel reached on the errant throw, went to third on Carlos Correa’s double off usual Rays closer Emilio Pagan and scored on a one-out bloop single that dropped in front of left fielder Austin Meadows.

"I made a terrible throw,'' Adames said. "I put Emilio in a bad spot there to start the inning and they made me pay.''

The Astros added a run in the eighth by rapping three singles off Nick Anderson.

The Rays did make it interesting, and tense for the sellout crowd of 43,376, by scoring in the ninth off Houston closer Roberto Osuna with a series of high quality at-bats.

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Austin Meadows led off with a single, Tommy Pham followed with another, and Ji-Man Choi walked to load the bases. An Avisail Garcia grounder to third got one run home, with a force out at second. Brandon Lowe walked to re-load the bases and end Osuna’s night. But Will Harris struck out Travis d’Arnaud and got Kiermaier to ground out to end it.

"To be down 3-0 there in the ninth and put the go-ahead run to the plate with zero, one outs, that just kind of shows you what we’ve been about the whole year,'' Kiermaier said. "There’s no quit in us all year.'''

After Friday’s loss, Rays manager Kevin Cash said they got “Verlander-ed,’’ which was already on a T-shirt for sale online via on Saturday.

The way Cole pitched, they may want to consider a series.

Cole had a spectacular regular season, going 20-5 with a majors-most 326 strikeouts, the most since Randy Johnson fanned 334 in 2002 and by an AL pitcher since Nolan Ryan had 341 in 1977.

Saturday, Cole was dominant from the start until leaving with two eights in the eighth. Fourteen of his 15 strikeouts were swinging, with 33 swings-and-misses overall. He got every hitter in the Rays order to strike out at least once, and Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe three times. The only batter he walked was his last one.

"The way Gerrit threw today, it’s tough,'' Kiermaier said. "He was dominant. He had our number. Every pitch he threw was plus--plus.''

Cole was the seventh pitcher to strike out at least 15 in a postseason game and the first since Rogers Clemens in 2000 for the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS against Seattle. He joined Bob Gibson, from his MLB postseason record 17-K game in the 1968 World Series, as the only pitchers to strike out 15 with one or no walks.

What made Cole so effective Saturday?

"Power,'' Cash said. "A lot of power. He had his fastball really going at the mid to top of the zone. Threw his breaking balls at will. I mean, I don’t think anything he did was surprising. He’s just that good.''

"That was majestic,'' Adames said. "He was mixing the pitches good. ... That made it tough for us.''

Though the Rays remained optimistic, their failures mounted as the night went on.

"It’s not helplessness; we know what we’re up against, he’s a great pitcher,'' Kiermaier said. "He’s nasty. He might be the Cy Young winner this year, and that just doesn’t happen by surprise. You throw 100, and you go out there and throw a 90-92 mph slider, nasty curveball, good changeup, just one of those things. You try to react to his pitches but you have to have some educated guesses up there, too. A guy who throws that hard with electric stuff like that you have to hope he leaves some out over the plate. ... He just has the complete arsenal you want in a starting pitcher. It’s not an easy test by any means but we hope we can face him again.''

Cole scattered three singles through the first seven innings. The only threat the Rays really mounted came in the eighth when Kevin Kiermaier, who had been 0-for-9 in the postseason, doubled with two outs and Adames drew a walk. That ended Cole’s night with a career-high 118 pitches.

"You can’t strike out that much and expect to win games,'' outfielder Tommy Pham said. "Plain and simple.''

Snell had reasons to be excited about making his first postseason start to cap a season marked by inconsistencies and injuries, including late July elbow surgery that sidelined him until mid-September and continues to limit his workload and effectiveness.

Snell zipped through the first, with three quick outs on 10 pitches. He got into trouble in the second allowing two one-out singles then out of it by striking out Carlos Correa and getting Tampa native Kyle Tucker on a fly to deep center. He allowed a one-out double to Jose Altuve in third, but escaped when catcher d’Arnaud hustled after an inning-ending strike three bounced away and threw to first to just beat Michael Brantley, even more important since Snell didn’t cover home.

And he started the fourth well, getting ahead of MVP candidate Bregman 0-2, but three straight balls, then a foul ball, led to the 96 mph fastball that soared out of the park.

"It’s just frustrating because I know how to get him out,'' Snell said. "I know what to throw to get him out. It’s just lack of location. Still finding it, still trying to get there. I know I can so that’s where it’s frustrating.''

Snell was done after striking out Yordan Alvarez, throwing 58 pitches, allowing four hits, striking out five in 3 1/3 innings.

"Obviously I wish I could have gone deeper,'' Snell said. "I know I can’t just because of the injury and I’m still getting into the swing of things. But when you face a guy like that, you want to be out there as long as him, you want to be able to match him inning for inning. He had a helluva game.''

Diego Castillo and Ryan Yarbrough followed with some tremendous relief work. Castillo finished the fourth and worked the fifth, and Yarbrough the sixth.

The Rays played some dazzling defense.

First baseman Choi made a diving stop, and a good throw to Castillo covering first, in the fourth. Castillo came off the mound quickly to get Correa out at first to end the inning. Adames snagged a hard grounder, touched second and fired to first to double up Altuve to end the fifth, helping Castillo out of a jam where he had runners on the corners with one out.

And the rally in the ninth gave them some hope.

"We had some good at-bats, no doubt,'' Cash said. "There at the end, we just came up a little short. Too late, really. But really, really good at-bats. Put pressure on. Just a big hit eluded us. But part of the reason is because their pitchers are really good.''

The Rays have certainly seen that. On T-shirts and in person.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.