Let’s go! (Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Rays)

After finishing off the Yankees on Friday, 2-1 — as well as an off-day to recover on Saturday — the Tampa Bay Rays play host to the Houston Astros in San Diego on Sunday, when they open the best of seven American League Championship Series at Petco Park. Houston took three of four games from the Oakland Athletics in the last round and has been to the ALCS four consecutive seasons.

New York undoubtedly had firepower; arguably enough to cast aside those pesky Rays. Yet, Tampa Bay was at least as good as the Yankees, if not better. That should come as no surprise to anyone given that the Rays topped the Yankees for the division crown, and were the American League’s top seed entering the postseason.

Suffice it to say, the Rays are certainly good enough to advance to the World Series, although they must first get through the Astros. Tampa Bay will be tasked with slowing down an Astros lineup that has been rather toasty throughout the postseason. Carlos Correa is 10-20 with four home runs and 12 RBI during the postseason, while Kyle Tucker is 10-25 with just one strikeout. Jose Altuve is 5-15 with three home runs, professional asshole Alex Bregman is 6-15 with two homers, and Michael Brantley is 4-8. And despite ending the regular season with a sub .500 record, they had the lowest strikeout rate AL during the regular season.

After being the center of baseball’s biggest scandal in recent memory, the Astros have adopted full heel status as they cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs. As Tony Wolfe (FanGraphs) put it, they “chastised the public for not believing in them despite their four consecutive ALCS appearances, or maybe because of their 29-31 regular-season record, which made them the first AL team in history to make the playoffs with a losing record. They have relished in the fact that they are the last team anyone wants to watch succeed this year. They have no doubt committed to memory every word said about them, publicly or privately, by every player on Tampa Bay’s roster. They will do this because they are elite athletes, and being an elite athlete means being wired a little differently.”

Even so, the Rays have earned a lot of success over the last three seasons (including a pair of playoff appearances) largely because they have taken an unconventional approach to winning ball games. They mix and match the starting lineup based on the matchup — Kevin Cash rolled out a different lineup in 59 of 60 games during the regular season. Their pitching philosophy embodies this as well. Tampa Bay used 12 different starting pitchers, frequently going to the “opener” strategy and flip-flopping arms between the rotation and bullpen all season long … and to great effect; the Rays’ pitching staff maintained a 3.56 ERA (second in the AL) and a 3.94 FIP (third in the AL) in 2020. Compare that to Houston, which was in the middle of the pack in both categories (4.31 ERA/4.33 FIP).

Losing to the Astros in five games last season helped the Rays prepare for their current postseason run.

That experience probably helped us get to where we are right now. And the irony is now that we’re playing them again.

— Kevin Cash, probably channeling Alanis Morissette

Kevin Kiermaier believes the Rays’ current roster is better than the one that faced Houston in 2019.

I like our chances, I do. I like how we match up against them, I think it’s going to be a great series though. Houston’s playing really well.

— Kevin Kiermaier

Whatever the case, the festivities kick off in a few hours.

Pitching Probables

Over the first four contests, Kevin Cash is expected to lean on Blake Snell (1-1, 3.59 ERA), Charlie Morton (1-0, 1.80 ERA), Ryan Yarbrough (0-0, 3.65 ERA), and Tyler Glasnow (5.32 ERA). Note: the Rays skipper has not committed to a pitcher in the fourth game of the series. This preview will be updated to reflect any and all changes. Dusty Baker will counter with Framber Valdez (2-0, 1.50 ERA), Lance McCullers Jr. (0-0, 9.00 ERA), José Urquidy (1-1, 2.73 ERA), while a starter in Thursday’s contest is also TBD. The above-mentioned addendum applies.

Blake Snell started Monday night’s contest and was undone by a triplet of home runs and poor command. The left-hander allowed four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out four across five innings of work. Clint Frazier, Kyle Higashioka, and Aaron Judge all took Snell deep, with the latter two in the fifth inning after the Rays had taken a 3-2 lead. Snell was constantly working from behind and went to three-ball counts to seven different hitters. He could not locate his fastball or his secondary pitches, and as a result, had to rely more on his changeup and curveball which he left in very hittable locations. Snell is 2-2 with a 4.73 ERA in six regular-season starts against Houston and went 0-1 with a 1.90 ERA in the ALDS last season, including a save.

Framber Valdez allowed two runs on five hits with four strikeouts and one walk over seven innings against Oakland on Tuesday. The southpaw gave up solo shots to Khris Davis and Chad Pinder, but otherwise held the Athletics in check. Valdez has been impressive in his two playoff outings, allowing two runs on seven hits with a 3 K/BB across 12 innings of work. Mike Zunino is the only current member of the roster to face Valdez, yet even so, he is 0-2 against the left-hander. All of the home runs Valdez allowed during the regular season were against right-handed batters, so it stands to reason he will face a predominantly right-handed lineup. He is not an overpowering hurler, relying primarily on a worm-killer 93 mph sinker with heavy sinking action and a whiffy 81 mph curveball with exceptional bite and sweeping glove-side movement, while also mixing in a hard 89 mph changeup.

Charlie Morton had a strong outing in his first playoff start of the year on Wednesday, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits with six strikeouts and two walks over five innings on 86 pitches (55 strikes, 64% strike rate, 19% SwStr). Morton ran into trouble during the third inning but stranded the bases loaded after allowing just a run. He also stranded a runner on second base after surrendering a run-scoring double during the fifth inning. Morton is 4-6 with a 6.28 ERA in 11 career regular-season starts against his former team and went 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in two postseason starts last year (including a 5 IP/3 H/1 R/9 K/2 BB outing against Houston in the ALDS).

Lance McCullers Jr. lasted just four innings in Game 1 of the ALDS against Oakland on Monday, allowing five runs (four earned) on nine hits and a walk while striking out five. McCullers gave a two-run shot to Khris Davis in the second inning followed by solo shots to Sean Murphy and Matt Olson over the next two frames. He was pulled from the game after allowing the leadoff runner to reach base in the bottom of the fifth; he would eventually come around to score to add a fifth run to McCullers’ line. McCullers relies primarily on a 94 mph sinker with some natural sinking action and a hard and whiffy 84 mph curveball with sharp downward bite and slight glove-side movement, while also mixing in a firm 86 mph changeup that dives down out of the zone. The right-hander is 1-2 with a 3.79 ERA in three career starts against Tampa Bay. Key Matchups: Willy Adames (1-2), Manuel Margot (1-3), Joey Wendle (1-3)

Ryan Yarbrough allowed two runs on six hits and one walk over five innings against the Yankees on Thursday. He struck out one. The southpaw generated just three swinging strikes on 65 pitches, yet he was able to hold New York in check aside from a two-run homer by Gleyber Torres. In all fairness, he is a pitch to contact kind of hurler. It isn’t yet known whether he would start the game, or pitch behind an opener as he had on Thursday. Yarbrough is 0-1 with a 2.92 ERA in two career regular-season outings against Houston (12-1/3 IP) and went 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in three ALDS appearances last season.

José Urquidy allowed four earned runs on four solo shots, an additional hit, and a walk while striking out three over 4-1/3 innings on Wednesday. Urquidy failed to make it out of the fifth inning. The 25-year-old threw 62 of his 79 pitches for strikes (83% strike rate) and recorded a first-pitch strike on 13 of the 21 batters that he faced, yet he hadn’t allowed more than one run in any other playoff appearance. Urquidy relies primarily on a 94 mph four-seam fastball with some added backspin, while also mixing in an 85 mph changeup with arm-side fade, an 80 mph slider with some two-plane movement, and a 77 mph curveball. He has never faced the Rays.

Tyler Glasnow opened game five of the ALDS on short rest (two days) and posted two scoreless innings, allowing just a walk, yet throwing just 13 of 27 pitches for strikes (48% strike rate, 31% SwStr). Glasnow walked Brett Gardner on five pitches to open the third before Kyle Higashioka struck out looking. Glasnow was pulled after one time through the Yankees lineup. His scoreless outing followed a 5 IP/4 R/10 K start on Tuesday. Glasnow is 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in one career regular-season start against Houston and went 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in the ALDS last season.



— With the submission deadline for the ALCS rosters at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Rays a few moves, adding lefties Josh Fleming and Jose Alvarado to the stable, which gives Kevin Cash 14 hurlers and 14 position players. To create space on the roster, OF Brett Phillips has been removed.

Fleming (5-0, 2.78 ERA) last pitched in the final game of the season, although he has not been active during the postseason. He, however, has thrown bullpens and pitched in simulated games. Fleming gives the Rays length on the roster.

Alvarado has not pitched since August 14th, when he was placed on the IL with a lat strain. The southpaw gives the Rays another high-velocity arm against the Astros’ offense. Alvarado allowed six runs in nine innings in his 2020 campaign, although four of them came in his last appearance. He has had command and control issues in the past, walking six batters in nine innings while striking out 13 (2.17 K/BB).

Tampa Bay now has six left-handers, as Alvarado and Fleming join Blake Snell, Ryan Yarbrough, Aaron Loup (who hadn’t been used in the ALDS), and Shane McClanahan.

Prior to Sunday, Kevin Cash told the media they are sorting through options, and with up to seven games and no days off during this round, they will need to be creative and find ways for the starters to be efficient against Houston.

You also have to take into account what we asked of the guys yesterday. Nick, Pete, and Diego that’s three pretty big workloads for them and Tyler.

— Kevin Cash

The stable threw two frames or more on Friday. In spite of the off-day on Saturday, the Rays could play 14 games in 15 days.

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