One way or another, Rays always were heading to a Game 5

John Romano | There could be no other way to finish a season of taunts and brushbacks between the Rays and Yankees.
Tampa Bay Rays players and coaches look on from the dugout during the ninth inning of the American League Division against the New York Yankees on Thursday in San Diego.
Tampa Bay Rays players and coaches look on from the dugout during the ninth inning of the American League Division against the New York Yankees on Thursday in San Diego. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 9, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

This isn’t how you wanted it, but it’s probably the way it should be.

Back to Gerrit Cole, back to Tyler Glasnow, back to Game 5. And back to another shot at taking down one of baseball’s heavyweights and moving deeper into October than Tampa Bay has been in years.

If you have any romance in your soul, you may even say the story line is poetic.

“I’m sure MLB is thrilled about that,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t know if Rays fans are.”

Well that’s going to depend on Game 5, isn’t it? Beat the Yankees on Friday night, and it’s the epic finish that this season-long feud deserved. Otherwise, Rays fans will spend another winter reliving every missed opportunity, including an uninspired 5-1 loss Thursday night in Game 4 in the American League Division Series at San Diego.

“We’ve got to bring the energy (Friday),” shortstop Willy Adames said. “Hey, who said it was going to be easy?”

Every trade the Rays have made, every injury they’ve endured, every victory they have celebrated has led back to this moment.

Thanks to a leap year calendar, it’s been exactly 365 days since Cole took the mound for the Astros and beat Glasnow and the Rays in Game 5 of the 2019 American League Division Series.

So is it to be vengeance or heartbreak this time?

Will the Rays be the team with the small payroll that defies logic and odds to beat the Yankees, or will they be another small-market, high-IQ team similar to Oakland that keeps coming up just a little short in the biggest postseason moments?

Really, it could all depend on how they react to facing baseball’s most expensive pitcher, who signed a $324 million deal with New York in the offseason.

A year ago, Cole was Tampa Bay’s boogeyman. The Rays beat Houston’s Zack Greinke in Game 3 and they beat Justin Verlander in Game 4, but because they never came close to solving Cole, they fell in the ALDS for the fourth consecutive time.

Cole didn’t just beat the Rays, he owned them. He threw 7.2 innings of shutout ball with 15 strikeouts in Game 2 of that 2019 series, then came back in Game 5 with eight innings of one-run ball and another 10 strikeouts.

So why should you have any optimism that this Game 5 will be different?

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Because this is a better Rays team than 2019.

The Rays may have lost to Cole in Game 1 on Monday night, but they no longer seem as intimidated as last season. Cole has started four times against Tampa Bay this season and is 1-1 with a 4.84 ERA. Maybe he will dial it up a notch for another Game 5, or maybe he’ll struggle pitching on three days rest for the first time in his big-league career.

“It helps that we’ve had plenty of reps against him and, yeah, we have specific guys who have had success,” Cash said. “We’ve had the ability as a team at times, and maybe we didn’t do it in Game 1, to drive his pitch count up a little bit so maybe he doesn’t get as deep in the ballgame as anticipated. Those at-bats we’re going to have to pick up right out of the gate.”

But if you’re banking on Cole to be shaky on three days' rest, you have to admit the Rays are pushing the envelope by starting Glasnow on two days' rest. Chances are, Glasnow will be little more than an opener in Game 5. He likely will go one time through the New York batting order, then Cash will turn it over to Blake Snell on three days' rest.

That might sound encouraging to have twin aces in the same game, except Snell and Glasnow were both roughed up earlier in the series. As it turned out, Game 3 starter Charlie Morton and Game 4 bulk reliever Ryan Yarbrough both had better five-inning efforts.

History also suggests that winning Game 4 gives a team a little momentum in Game 5. Since the division series was introduced in 1995, the Game 4 winner has gone on to win the series 56.2 percent of the time, including eight of the past 11 times.

The truth is, there’s always a little randomness to the postseason, and every extra layer is another opportunity to stumble. The Rays finished seven games ahead of the Yankees in the American League East, and they’ve beaten them 10 times in 14 meetings head-to-head.

Yet the next nine innings will decide who moves on and who heads home.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.