ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Zack Greinke got hit hard. So did Justin Verlander. And all of a sudden, the Houston Astros and their heavyweight rotation have only one chance left to knock out the pesky Rays.
It’s up to Gerrit Cole in Game 5.
Verlander gave up three first-inning runs while pitching on short rest and the Astros lost 4-1 to Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, tying their AL Division Series at two games apiece.
“Even after going up two games against this ballclub, I don’t think we took anything for granted,” Verlander said. “At least I know I didn’t. We know how talented these guys were and are. We knew it would be a battle.”
The playoff will be decided Thursday night in Houston, with Tyler Glasnow expected to start for the Rays. The winner advances to face the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series, while the loser goes home for the winter.
“Obviously, I was hoping to win yesterday. I was hoping to win today. But we’ve had our backs against the wall before and come out victorious,” Verlander said.
It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for the Astros, who led the majors with 107 wins and captured their third consecutive AL West title. Seeking a second World Series championship in three years, they dominated the wild-card Rays behind the brilliant pitching of Verlander and Cole during the first two games at home.
But once they arrived at quirky Tropicana Field, they didn’t look like themselves against the Rays.
“A lot of credit to them for their preparation and putting themselves in this position,” Cole said. “I certainly think they’ve earned it. … They’ve played calm, cool and collected.”
And now, even with all those aces, there’s no more margin for error.
“Welcome to postseason baseball,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “You’d like to eliminate when you have the opportunity. We’re not going to hang our heads.”
Verlander threw seven shutout innings of one-hit ball last Friday in a Game 1 victory. But in his first career start on three days’ rest following a full outing the previous time out, the Rays chased the Cy Young Award contender with two outs in the fourth and a 4-0 lead Tuesday.
Verlander’s dud followed Greinke’s early hook in Monday’s 10-3 loss. Greinke, a six-time All-Star who went 18-5 with a 2.93 ERA for Arizona and Houston this year, exited after giving up three homers and six runs in 3 2/3 innings.
So after two surprising subpar outings by the rotation, a third straight trip to the ALCS rests on the shoulders of Cole, who is coming off a stellar 15-strikeout performance over 7 2/3 scoreless innings in a Game 2 win Saturday. He will be on regular rest.
Cole was 20-5 during the regular season. He topped the majors with 326 strikeouts and led the American League with a 2.50 ERA.
“I love the opportunity we have,” Hinch said. “We’ll take another opportunity to win the game with Cole on the mound. I certainly feel very comfortable what that. Anybody would, putting him on the mound.”
It’s been more than pitching that’s derailed the Astros: A high-powered offense was mostly absent during the two defeats, too.
Houston was held off the scoreboard by a string of Tampa Bay relievers in Game 4 until Robinson Chirinos homered in the eighth. The Astros finished with six hits.
“We’re having a hard time offensively,” Hinch said.
Houston was 3 for 18 with runners in scoring position during the two previous games and failed to get a hit in its three chances Tuesday.
The game ended when 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell struck out Yordan Alvarez and retired Yuli Gurriel on a sharp grounder with two on to earn a save in his first big league relief appearance.
Things need to turn around quickly for the Astros or their 107 regular-season wins will be of little consolation — and the small-budget Rays will be the ones getting their shot at the Yankees.
Houston went 60-21 at home during the regular season and is counting on Cole to swing the momentum once more.
“Hopefully he’s going to do it again,” Chirinos said. “That’s what we’re looking for. Getting back home for the fifth game is huge for us. We’ve played better at home this year.”
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