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.
The playoff will be decided Thursday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to face the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
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.
And now, even with all those aces, there’s no more margin for error.
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 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.
But 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 just six hits.
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.