Out of necessity two years ago, Tampa Bay became the trendsetter with the "opener" as a part of the Rays pitching plans. That's a reliever who starts a game in what becomes a planned bullpen day in mid-season. It helped them avoid challenges during the regular season when they didn't feel they had a deep enough rotation.
With the Rays headed to Game 5 of the ALDS on Thursday night in no small part because of the use of an "Opener" in a win-or-go-home Game 4 in Houston that the Rays won, 4-1, using their pitching staff in reverse. In a game Diego Castillo started, it was Blake Snell, a regular season member of the Rays rotation, who came on to get the final two outs of the game and earn the save.
The Rays weaved their way through the Astros lineup -- limiting the Astros to Robinson Chirinos' eighth-inning home run off Colin Poche -- allowing just six hits, striking out eight and walking two. Nick Anderson, the third Rays pitcher on the mound, worked the team-high 2 1/2 innings, but then he only threw 22 pitches, allowing a single and striking out two.
Snell? He threw only eight pitches, six strikes.
“We knew going in that we were going to try to get the ideal matchups for everybody,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin 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.”
Astros right-hander Justin Verlander is the ultimate warrior.
But even Verlander has human moments.
Starting on three days rest for only the second time in 27 post-season appearances -- 26 starts -- Verlander was gone after 3 2/3 innings,Tampa Bay coming away with a 4-1 victory that forces a winner-go-home Game 5 at Minute Maid Park in Houston to decide the AL Division Series.
The only other time he failed to work at least four innings in 26 post-season starts was Sept. 30, 2011 at Yankee Stadium when he pitched one inning before rains forced a delay.
Now, the Astros do feel good about what lies ahead in light of the fact they do have Gerrit Cole set to start Game 5 on Thursday on normal rest. But that doesn't make things any easier for Verlander to accept.
He, however, was not making excuses.
“The low-hanging fruit is to say this was short rest and that’s the reason why,” he said. “I don’t think so. I felt good physically. I just didn’t execute.”
Verlander lasted only 3 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits, including two homers, with three walks and five strikeouts.
And Astros manager A.J. Hinch was looking ahead, not second-guessing his decision to start Verlander instead of rookie Jose Urquidy.
“In the postseason, you ask somebody to do something that's not normal, it's always a little nerve-wracking,” Hinch said. “But [Verlander] felt great, and he made a lot of really good pitches and got a lot of swings and misses [12 among 84 pitches]. I would have felt bad with any decision that led to three runs in the bottom of the first. If we would have gone with Urquidy and he would have done that, it would have been, ‘Should you have put a rookie in that situation?’”