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Astros have advantages, but the Rays have an edge

Rays-Astros Game 5: For the fourth time in nine days, Tampa Bay will be playing with its season on the line.
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) rounds the bases after connecting for a three-run homer in the second inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) rounds the bases after connecting for a three-run homer in the second inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 10, 2019

HOUSTON — The American League Division Series is even heading into Thursday night’s fifth and final game, and the Astros have the advantages. They’re playing at home — a result of their majors-most 107 regular-season wins — and they have a better-credentialed starting pitcher in Gerrit Cole.

But it sure seems like the Rays have the edge.

Coming back from the brink of elimination with consecutive wins at a juiced Tropicana Field had the revived Rays rolling into Houston on Wednesday believing they had momentum on their side.

“We’re feeling good about ourselves,’’ center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We know we won’t have our crowd, which was absolutely amazing, but we’ve won on the road all year. And we plan on doing that one more time in a tough environment (at Minute Maid Park).’’

Momentum, especially in baseball, is hard to carry over. A bad opening inning by a starting pitcher or a costly error can undo all the good of the day before. But the Rays seemed to have rekindled their confidence in the Games 3 and 4 wins, especially in manhandling Astros ace Justin Verlander on Tuesday after being shut down in Game 1.

Unsaid is the pressure the Astros might be feeling from what was supposed to be preliminary to their AL Championship Series battle with the Yankees. Their status as World Series favorite is suddenly riding on one game.

As much as the Astros’ home crowd can help, the Rays taking an early lead Thursday could quickly turn this into an awkward and nervous gathering of 43,000.

“I think it’s just who wants it more,’’ Rays pitcher Blake Snell said. “And I think that’s the exciting part for us, is we’ve played an elimination game already. We’ve been doing it, actually. So for us, it’s just another game that we’re excited to play.’’

The Rays certainly have the motivation.

Winning twice at the Trop after getting shut down in Houston allowed the Rays to relax and exhale. It also seemed to empower them to speak out about what they felt was a dismissal of their accomplishments in winning 96 times, plus the AL wild-card game.

“Honestly, we kind of got annoyed,’’ Snell said. “I got annoyed of hearing about Houston this, Houston that. I know how good they are. I know how talented that team is. But I felt like everything media-driven was strictly about them, and they weren’t giving us any credit. They weren’t talking about us at all.

“That’s why I was annoyed because we know how good we are. For us to fight back to 2-2, it’s pretty cool. But we’re not done, and I know that we’ve got a really tough task to beat them here.’’

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To do so, the Rays will have to find a way to rebound against Cole, who struck out 15 over 7⅔ shutout innings, as they did Tuesday against Verlander.

While Cole will be on regular rest, he did throw a career-high 118 pitches Saturday, so there is that, plus the generally accepted benefit to the hitters of seeing a pitcher in back-to-back starts.

The Rays would also like to get a strong five or six innings from their starter, Tyler Glasnow, though they showed Tuesday that using five relievers and a Cy Young Award-winning starter in Snell to close can work, too. Snell and Charlie Morton will be available in the bullpen.

In the past eight days, the Rays have played three games where a loss would have ended their season. They won them all despite being the underdog, beating Oakland in the wild-card game, then the Astros twice.

Manager Kevin Cash said, as he has previously, how impressed he was with the way his team handled and responded to the seemingly dire situation. “They didn’t hang their heads,’’ he said.

Kiermaier said that’s because they have too much to prove.

“We have this attitude that we don’t care,’’ he said. “We don’t care. We love a good challenge. That’s what makes this game so great. You always want to play the best of the best, and we’re playing the best team in baseball and we’re holding our own, and then some.

“We’re so pumped to get back to Houston. What a thrill, what a ride it’s been so far. And we’re not ready for this ride to be over. We’re going to come out with our 'A' game hopefully and keep this magical season going. We’re fully capable of it.’’

Or, as infielder Brandon Lowe said, “A pretty simple way to look at it is that we’re a lot better than a lot of people think. … And I don’t think we’re done yet.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.