Gerrit Cole has a ton riding on tonight's Game 5

Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch during the second inning of a game against the Seattle Marinersat T-Mobile Park on September 24, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.
Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch during the second inning of a game against the Seattle Marinersat T-Mobile Park on September 24, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Getty Images)

HOUSTON – And then there was one -- one game.

How did we get here so soon? Less than two weeks ago, the Houston Astros were finishing off a franchise-best, league-leading season of 107 wins. And just a few days ago, potential Cy Young-winner Gerrit Cole racked up 15 strikeouts over 7 2/3 scoreless innings to give the Astros a two-games-to-none series lead over the Tampa Bay Rays. Now suddenly, they're in an elimination game.

That, of course, makes Cole's performance Thursday night that much more important. By carrying the Astros to victory, Cole would only make himself more attractive to teams seeking to snap him up when his contract expires at the end of this season. The Astros paid Cole $13.5 million in 2019, considerably less than his pitching teammates Zach Greinke and Justin Verlander, who made $34.5 million and $28.1 million, respectively. Expect clubs around the league to up the ante considerably in the offseason.

The Astros will have difficulty holding onto him, given that so much of their 2020 payroll is already spoken for. They would have to stay under the $208 million salary cap in order to avoid getting hit with the MLB's Competitive Balance Tax, which can be as low as 12 percent and as high as a whopping 45 percent. It seems unlikely that General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Owner Jim Crane will want to absorb that large a tax bill. So ironically, another stellar Cole performance on Thursday night could mean short-term joy for Astros fans, but long-term heartbreak.  

But first thing's first. The Astros have to win. And the Rays didn't win 96 games for no reason. Their pitching staff is diverse, well-managed, and produced the best ERA of any team in the American League during the regular season. By varying pitchers inning to inning, they've often taken away the rhythm of our hitters and their ability to string hits together. (It also doesn't help that the Astros have gone 6-for-30 with runners in scoring position for the series.) Combine that with subpar performances from Greinke and Verlander, rejuvenated Rays bats, and frenzied crowds in St. Petersburg, and the Rays have all the momentum headed into Minute Maid for Game 5.

The Rays know that the home crowd could blunt their momentum in a hurry, so their best chance is to get to Cole in the first few innings. Cole knows this, so he'll be primed for a stellar start. That will be doubly important, because it will amp up the crowd and hopefully wake up the Astros bats. But the bats have to face Tyler Glasnow, who confounded the Astros hitters in Game 1 (before finally surrendering a two-run homer to Altuve in the fifth inning). 

It's the playoffs, so already there are so many hypotheticals. Will the Astros bats finally crack the Rays' pitchers? Will the Rays hitters solve Cole a second time around? Both? We can only guess. But let's say Cole and Glasnow stay true to form and battle to a stand-still. Glasnow will likely leave after five or fewer innings. Then Tampa's deep bullpen takes over. And let's say Cole can keep things close deep into the game. Even if he pitches lights-out, it would all come down to Astros closers and the ability of their hitters to deliver a knock-out punch.

And that's where Cole's intense competitive drive could be a factor. It's hard to deny that the entire series, even during their wins, the Astros have looked tense, confused, sometimes frustrated, like a team pressured by the expectation of dynasty. The same drive and urgency so apparent from the start of the 2017 playoffs in that World Series-winning team just isn't there yet. Meanwhile, as the series has progressed, the Rays are having more fun, relishing their underdog status, and bonding as a team at exactly the right time. They look hungry, motivated. But perhaps most dangerous: they have a chip on their shoulder. Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times, Rays pitcher Blake Snell related his team's annoyance with all the Houston hype. And they'll only be buoyed by the shocking manner in which the favored Braves and Dodgers lost their Game 5s at home on Wednesday.

What we can hope is that Cole's intensity and fighting spirit carries over to the rest of the team. In particular, it would do wonders to see sudden outbursts from George Springer and Michael Brantley, who are hitting a dismal 4-for-33 combined for the series. If the team can create traffic on the bases and better deliver with RISP, if Cole pitches as masterfully as he did in Game 2, and if the back end of our bullpen stays toe to toe with the Rays' bullpen, then of course they can move on to face the Yankees on Saturday night. But it all has to come together. And the Astros have to find the same fire that carried them throughout the 2017 postseason. Even if they get past the Rays, they'll certainly need that fire, and more, against the Yankees.