HOUSTON – The Houston Astros won a franchise record 107 games this season and now are set to begin their postseason journey to what they hope will be a second World Series title in three seasons.
The Tampa Bays stand in their way first as their opponent in the American League Division Series. The Rays eliminated the Oakland Athletics in the wild card game on Tuesday with a 5-1 win behind the stellar pitcher of former Astros World Series hero Charlie Morton and a multi-homer game from Yandy Diaz.
Let's breakdown the matchup between the Rays and Astros in this best-of-five division series.
Starting Pitching: First off, the Rays (3.65) and Astros (3.66) finished 1st and 2nd overall in the AL in ERA. Houston was first in batting average against (.221), most strikeouts (1671) and fewest walks (448). The ERA lead shifts to the Astros when it's just among starters (3.61 to the Rays 3.64). But it should be noted the Rays were one of the teams that employed an opener for much of the season. For this series, the Astros clearly have an advantage on paper with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. The Rays, though, now that they are healthy can boast an awfully strong trio of starters, too. Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell are the games 1 and 2 starters, followed by Charlie Morton.
Glasnow and Snell both missed significant chunks of the season due to injury, but they combined for just 35 starts and 167.2 innings pitched. Glasnow was outstanding posting a 1.78 ERA and was not scored upon in his last 3 appearances. Snell struck out 147 batters in 107 innings, but did not look like the pitcher that won the AL Cy Young award in 2018, posting a 4.29 ERA.
Verlander and Cole are the top two candidates for this season's Cy Young award after finishing 1-2 in nearly all pertinent pitching categories, including WHIP, batting average against and strikeouts.
Additionally, Greinke, Cole and Verlander have combined for 40 postseason starts and 18 postseason wins. Glasnow & Snell will be making their postseason debuts. Of course, Morton has plenty of postseason experience and success. He was on the hill for Houston as they clinched their first ever World Series title in 2017.
Bullpen: This is the only potential weak spot for the Astros, but certainly not an issue. The trio of Will Harris, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna is who they hope to use to get the final 6-9 outs in any given game and they have been great. Osuna had 38 saves to go with his 2.63 ERA and 0.877 WHIP. Pressly is back from his knee injury and posted a 2.32 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. Harris posted a 1.50 ERA which was the best in the entire league among pitchers with at least 60 innings. The rest of the bullpen is where the question marks lie, with Josh James, Brad Peacock and others not showing the type of consistency the Astros would have liked.
The Rays bring the heat out of the pen with Emilio Pagan, Nick Anderson, Colin Poche leading their electric arms of relievers. Anderson faced 78 batters in his 23 games with the Rays and struck out 41 of them. If their relievers aren't overworked, then they could certainly help swing things in the Rays favor.
Offense: Regardless of the opposition, the advantage in this category would go to the Astros. Their offense has been historically productive. The Astros offense set a Major League record with a .495 slugging percentage and their .848 OPS ranked 11th all-time. Both marks also led the majors and marked new franchise records. Houston also led the Majors in walks (645), batting average (.274) and OBP (.352). They have the most dangerous and deepest lineups in baseball.
The Rays boast a balanced group, but not nearly as potent as Houston's Austin Meadows was their best hitter this season and comes off a strong September that earned him player of the month. Meadows .OPS was .922, no other Rays player had an .OPS over .850. By contrast, seven Astros players carried an .850 .OPS or better and that doesn't include Kyle Tucker, who had an .857 .OPS in September as he played his way into a larger role.
Defense: Both teams are regarded as among the league's best defensive teams. Houston was first in the American League in fielding percentage and boasts elite arms at nearly every position. Houston also has center fielder Jake Marisnick available off the bench if needed and he's regularly among the league leaders in defensive runs saved per inning played.
Kevin Kiermaier mans center field for the Rays and does it as well as anyone in baseball. He sets the tone for their entire defense.
Manager: Houston's A.J. Hinch and Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash are both former major league catchers and they're also good friends. Hinch guided the Astros to the best record in team history this season. Cash's Rays were one game shy of tying the all-time mark. Each was hired to their current job prior to the 2015 season. Both have finished in the top three in manager of the year voting, but have never won. They'd unquestionably be on the short list of best managers in baseball.
One major difference is this is the Astros fourth trip to the postseason in five years under Hinch, including the World Series crown in 2017. This is the first trip to the playoff for Cash.