Houston – If Wednesday's two National League Division Series Game 5 matchups are any indication, Thursday's American League Division Series Game 5 at Minute Maid Park between the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays could be a classic.
Twice on Wednesday, the visiting team took care of business with the St. Louis Cardinals rolling the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals dethroning the National League's king, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
When the curtain rises Thursday night at the Juice Box, what will we need to be looking for as the Astros look to punch their ticket to the American League Championship Series against the Yankees?
Pitching matchup, all hands on deck
In a win-or-go-home situation, every pitcher will need to be ready for both teams. It will begin with Gerrit Cole going against Tyler Glasnow.
He went just over seven innings in Game 2 on Saturday and didn't give up a run while striking out 15 Rays hitters. It was his 10th straight game with 10 or more strikeouts, which is a Major League Baseball record. Is earning an 11th asking too much?
The guy has been lights out since late May and when he's on the bump the Astros simply win games. During this amazing stretch that's been the talk of baseball, the Cole-Train is 17-0. Thursday night, he needs his A-game once again, and I think he'll bring it.
He is making his second start of the ALDS after opening Game 1 on Friday. The Rays right-hander went just over four innings and actually pitched pretty well despite giving up the homer to Jose Altuve.
The Rays' Kevin Cash will have his bullpen ready. He's done it all season and it won't change in Game 5. If Glasnow has any issues, Cash won't hesitate to give the ball to the next man up. Who might that be? It's a good question, but I expect the entire Rays group to be ready. Snell, Castillo, Anderson will be on standby.
Play smart and play clean
In the regular season or playoffs, this is always the case but things ramp up in the postseason and even more so in an elimination game such as Game 5.
The Astros are so well-coached, led by A.J. Hinch (more on that down the list), and that leads to keeping a level head and a laser focus just about every night.
Defense has been solid in this series and that needs to remain intact. We have seen several great plays from both the Astros and Rays throughout the first four games. Game 4 was a perfect example, when the Rays used two throws to the cutoff man and to home plate to nail Jose Altuve by a mere inch or so. That could have been a huge momentum shift if Jose Altuve had scored in the top of the fourth inning.
Astros X-factor in Game 5?
It's easy to go with the likes of an Altuve or Alex Bregman, but the leader of this team, in my opinion, is George Springer, who has struggled some at the plate so far in the ALDS.
There is no question that Springer is due to break out and make a big impact with his bat. He's that good and lives for the big moments. The past few years, it always seems that Springer is the guy who gets it all started for the Astros. How about a leadoff home run Thursday? He's had a few of those, hasn't he?
If not Springer, perhaps a guy such as Michael Brantley could make it a special night in his career. What a pickup he has been for this team.
I'd also like to see Carlos Correa bounce back with the bat and deliver in a big way in Game 5.
Spotlight on the skippers
This is a great series and the two managers, who are good friends, are battling it out with their strategic moves. That's the life of a manager.
The Rays' Cash has been around and won there for a few years, and he knows what he's doing. The past two seasons, he's led the Rays to 90-plus wins including 96 this year. The Rays players rave about the job Cash does and how he relates to them, manages the team and specifically this pitching staff.
A.J. Hinch has had a great run since his first year in 2015. He is battle-tested and won so many big games for this team, including the 2017 World Series. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow work hand in hand, shaping the roster and making decisions they feel will work between the lines. The analytics side is hands down the best in Major League Baseball, and now you are seeing more teams ramp up their efforts on the analytics side to keep pace.
In a Game 5, pressure-packed environment, I will give the advantage to Hinch. He's been there and done that, and he'll do so again Thursday night to help get the Astros to the ALCS to face the mighty New York Yankees.
Minute Maid Park magic
The Astros had the best home record in baseball and, when over 43,000 fans pack Minute Maid Park, the environment will be electric.
Bregman raved Wednesday about being home, being comfortable and feeding off the energy the crowd always bring to the Juice Box. It's an early game and the team marketing folks are really pushing for fans to arrive at the ballpark early for the 6:07 p.m. start.
In short, I say: Skip out of work, go a half-day or whatever fits your schedule and get there early. Get to your seats, wave your towel, make a lot of noise and be a factor in Game 5!