ST. PETERSBURG – The Rays like to do things their own way.
Often, unconventional. Occasionally, daring. Typically, arduously.
Tuesday, that all came together as they scored a second straight win over the Astros, 4-1, before another large and loud Tropicana Field crowd.
And as a result, they’ll be playing again another day, forcing a fifth and decisive AL division series game on Thursday night in Houston.
"We’re excited,'' manager Kevin Cash.
All they did Tuesday was use five relievers and then starter Blake Snell to finish a tense ninth in a true bullpen day arrangement to shut down the potent Astros.
They made the Astros decision to start Cy Young award favorite Justin Verlander on three days rest look like a terribly bad idea by pouncing on him for three runs in the first and knocking him out in the fourth.
They dazzled in the field, including a skills video-perfect relay from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to shortstop Willy Adames to catcher Travis d’Arnaud to snuff out a Houston rally in the fourth.
And they did all that responding to the energy of another loud and rollicking Tropicana Field crowd of 32,178.
Even as they lost the first two games of the best-of-five AL division series in Houston, and didn’t look particularly promising in doing so, the Rays expressed a quiet confidence they could compete with the MLB-best Astros.
And after the two impressive wins, they’re now at least back to even, however improbable that seemed.
"I don’t know if anybody had us getting to Game 4,'' d’Arnaud said. "Nobody had us getting to Game 5.''
And now that game will decide who gets to face the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
The Rays still have a difficult task, trying to beat the Astros for a third straight time, and having to face their other ace, Gerrit Cole. Tyler Glasnow will start for the Rays.
But it’s becoming more manageable.
Consider that of the 82 teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-five series, only 16 got back to even at 2-2. But 10 of those won.
"We’re up against a challenge obviously,'' reliever Emilio Pagan said, "but this team has proven time and time again that when our backs are up against the wall we put a pretty good effort.''
Both the Rays and Astros went into Tuesday’s game with somewhat unusual pitching strategies.
The Rays’ plan worked better.
Rather than use any one pitcher as a starter or even to cover the bulk of the innings, they opted for a bullpen day in the truest sense, with 10 of their 11 pitchers (all but Monday starter Charlie Morton) available for action, including Games 1 and 2 starters Glasnow and Snell.
And it worked out splendidly, even with the Astros tweaking their lineup to make it more challenging to match up by separating their lefty hitters.
Given the tremendous efforts of “starter” Diego Castillo, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson and Colin Poche, the Rays took a shutout into the eighth.
After Poche allowed a homer to ex-Ray Robinson Chirinos, Pagan got them through the eighth and into the ninth.
When Jose Altuve walked and Alex Bregman singled to bring the tying run to the plate, the Rays turned to Snell. He struck out lefty Yordan Alvarez and then got Yuli Gurriel to ground out for the final out.
"It’s definitely not the conventional way,'' d’Arnaud said. "But we’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s been successful. And today we showed the world it can be done.''
Pagan said the coaches did a good job prepping the relievers for how they may be used, and they all made a point to be ready early, and for anything.
"We knew going in that we were going to try to get the ideal match-ups for everybody,'' Cash said. "We weren’t going to let anybody face the same pitcher twice. But the guys, the pitchers were just unbelievable, how they executed pitches. It just kind of laid into the next reliever that came into the ballgame.''
The Astros, meanwhile, opted to start ace Verlander on three days’ rest rather than the usual four for the first time in his career, seeking a repeat of his dominating Game 1 performance.
That didn’t work out too well.
Verlander allowed three runs in a 32-pitch first inning on Tuesday and failed to make it through the fourth, knocked out after allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks, throwing 84 pitches in getting 11 outs.
The adjustments the Rays made from the opening game, when Verlander worked seven shutout innings and allowed one hit, sounded simple.
"Just be ready to hit,'' d’Arnaud said, "I don’t think he had the command he did in Game 1, and we were all ready to hit and we put some good swings and good wood on it and we found holes.''
"His fastball was his normal fastball,'' hitting coach Chad Mottola said. "He left some sliders (in the) middle for us, and we didn’t miss ‘em. It felt like the first game, we had some hittable pitches and we missed them. Whether that was a hangover from Oakland (where they won the wild-card game two nights earlier) or giving him a lot of credit. But today we didn’t miss ‘em.’’
Verlander said the lack of rest wasn’t the issue, but the lack of control overall and specifically command of the slider was.
"I treated it just like a start day. Honestly, the body felt good. I had no problems physically as far as how the body felt. It was just execution was an issue,'' he said. "I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t expecting or not expecting anything. I was expecting to be normal. The low-hanging fruit is to say this was short rest and that’s the reason why. I don’t think so. I felt good physically. I just didn’t execute physically. Really the slider was probably the worst it’s been all year. I needed things to go my way, our way, and then I made mistakes with guys on base. It kind of killed us.''
The Rays impressed not only with their swings and their pitches before another loud and energetic Tropicana Field crowd of 32,178.
In the fourth, they executed a relay play perfectly to kill a potential Astros rally.
Cash gambled a bit in allowing soft-tossing lefty Yarbrough to open the fourth facing two of the Astros toughest right-handed hitters, so he could get to lefty Alvarez.
Yarbrough came through it okay allowing a single to Altuve and getting Bregman to fly out, but then Alvarez laced a double that bounced just in front of the centerfield wall.
Kevin Kiermaier played the carom off the wall and fired to shortstop Willy Adames, who then threw a strike to the plate, where catcher Travis d’Arnaud made a sweep tag on Altuve as he slid by the plate.
"That was probably the biggest play of the game,'' Cash said. "I mean, you cannot execute or relay any better than that, from KK to Willy, T.D.'s tag. You’re not talking about a catcher running around or some big lumbering guy, it’s Jose Altuve. Everything had to be perfect, and it was.''
The Rays took the lead with an explosive first inning.
No. 2 hitter Tommy Pham homered to get them started. Ji-Man Choi walked, then Avisail Garcia singled, looking into the dugout, as he did Monday, to urge his teammates on. With two outs, d’Arnaud singled to left, scoring Choi. Then Joey Wendle, back in the lineup with Yandy Diaz out, doubled to right and Garcia raced home to make it 3-0. They extended the lead to 4-0 in the fourth when Adames launched a homer off the D-ring catwalk above centerfield.
"After that throw I was fired up,'' Adames said.
There were plenty of other contributions. Choi walked three times and made several stellar defensive plays. Avisail Garcia had four hits.
"We knew we had to have this game,'' Pagan said. "It was fun.''
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.