The Houston Astros are suddenly where they probably didn't expect to be so soon after finishing off an extraordinary 107-win season: on the brink of elimination in the American League Division Series.
It's not all Justin Verlander's fault, but the ace right-hander didn't exactly rise to the challenge of his first career start on three days of rest on Tuesday. He lasted only 3.2 innings and gave up all four of the Tampa Bay Rays' runs as they took Game 4 at Tropicana Field by a 4-1 final score.
Just like that, the Astros' 2-0 lead in the series has turned into a 2-2 tie with a win-or-go-home Game 5 on tap for Thursday.
If the Astros had their way in Game 4, Verlander would have gone deep and washed away the bad taste of fellow ace Zack Greinke's dud during a 10-3 loss in Monday's Game 3. Instead, he walked three and surrendered seven hits, including two that left the ballpark.
Willy Adames' leadoff shot in the fourth inning effectively sealed the fates of both Verlander and the Astros:
For Astros manager AJ Hinch, the decision to start Verlander in Game 4 was quite simple.
But despite the myriad facts that supported this notion—his eight All-Star nods, his Cy Young and MVP awards and his seven innings of one-hit ball in Game 1 of the ALDS on Friday—not even Verlander was immune to doubt relating to his short rest.
Set aside the fact that he had never done it before. A more telling data point was the track record of other starting pitchers who have taken the ball on short rest in October. According to STATS (via MLB.com's Andrew Simon and Matt Kelly), hurlers starting on three or fewer days of rest had racked up a 30-44 record and 4.58 ERA.
At no point in Game 4 did Verlander threaten to nudge those numbers in a positive direction. He was hit hard in the first inning, and though he sat at a ho-hum 95.1 mph with his heater, he never really enacted his typical fastball command. Likewise, his secondary pitches lacked their usual bite.
To their credit, Rays hitters largely refused to chase after the 36-year-old's misfires. And as noted by ESPN Stats & Info, they crushed his mistakes:
Game 4 is otherwise a feather in the cap of the modern "bullpenning" strategy the Rays have helped popularize. Beginning with Diego Castillo and ending with reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, six Rays pitchers limited the Astros to six hits and two walks.
But lest the Rays get too excited about facing the New York Yankees in their first American League Championship Series since 2008, they still have another game to win. And they'll have to do it in a hostile environment against Gerrit Cole.
Or, as he should be known, the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball right now.
Though Cole was hardly a slouch during his first season with Houston in 2018, he saved his best stuff for his second (and, perhaps not so coincidentally, his last before free agency).
Among the 29-year-old's accolades from the 2019 regular season are an AL-best 2.50 ERA and a single-season-record rate of 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings. And he went into the postseason hot with double-digit strikeouts in each of his last nine starts.
Then again, if that's hot, then Cole went full-on supernova in his first postseason assignment.
Starting opposite the Rays at Minute Maid Park in Game 2 of the ALDS on Saturday, Cole paced a 3-1 Astros win with 7.2 shutout innings. He gave up only four hits and one walk, and he became the first pitcher to strike out 15 in a postseason game since Roger Clemens in 2000.
Cole earned those strikeouts by racking up 33 swings-and-misses with the help of a fastball that touched 100 mph and a curveball and slider that were both breaking hard. Rob Friedman recorded every single one of them:
Unlike Greinke, who was pitching on 11 days of rest, and Verlander, who was obviously pitching on three, Cole will have the benefit of regular rest in Game 5. So this time, Hinch has every justification in feeling good about his upcoming starter.
"Gerrit Cole on the mound, I certainly feel comfortable about that," the skipper said after Game 4, per Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.
For their part, the Rays may feel just as comfortable with Tyler Glasnow lined up for Game 5. In light of the 1.78 ERA he put up in 12 starts, the 6'8" righty might have emerged as a Cy Young Award frontrunner if he hadn't been sidelined by a forearm strain for four months.
If Glasnow does indeed lead the Rays to a win in Game 5, it would be difficult to overstate the sheer magnitude of the upset they would have pulled off. They would, after all, have gone through Greinke, Verlander and Cole to climb out of a 2-0 hole against one of the winningest teams in baseball history.
Since that's a slice of infamy with which the Astros would rather not be associated, they'd better hope Cole doesn't make it three flops in a row.