Tommy Pham and Willy Adames each hit solo home runs as the Tampa Bay Rays chased Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander in the fourth inning en route to a 4-1 win in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday.
The Rays evened the best-of-five series at two games apiece.
The hosts jumped out to a 3-0 edge in the first inning, which was more than enough for opener Diego Castillo and five Rays relievers to hold serve at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay.
Rays DH Tommy Pham: 3-for-5, HR, 1 R, 1 RBI
Rays RF Avisail Garcia: 4-for-5, R
Rays SS Willy Adames: 1-for-3, HR, 1 R, 1 RBI
Astros SP Justin Verlander: 3.2 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, L
Astros CF George Springer: 2-for-4
Astros C Robinson Chirinos: 1-for-3, HR, 1 R, 1 RBI
Rays' Depth Strikes Again
The Rays don't have slugging superstars up and down the lineup like the Yankees, nor do they have a collection of aces like the Astros or Washington Nationals.
What they do have in bunches—tremendous depth at the dish and on the mound—gives them an edge in that department over every MLB team. And that might be good enough for an ALDS win and postseason success beyond.
Look at Tuesday's box score, for instance.
Adames, the No. 9 hitter in the Rays lineup, threw out speedy Jose Altuve at the plate to end the top of the fourth before leading off the bottom half with a 418-foot moonshot to left-center.
Joey Wendle, the No. 7 hitter who had all of three postseason at-bats before Tuesday, lined a two-RBI double in the first inning to give Tampa a 3-0 edge.
And on the mound, the Rays' relay team of relievers handed the baton off to each other all night, with only one run allowed on a Robinson Chirinos solo shot in the eighth.
Any Rays opponent—whether it's the 107-win Astros or otherwise—faces a significant issue: The Rays seemingly have a batter or pitcher ready for any given situation.
They have a trio of stud starting pitchers in Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow who can mow down hitters and eat innings. In a pinch, one of them can relieve too, as Snell did in closing out Game 4.
They have a few long relievers in Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough who can help build a bridge, and 11 relievers who have saved at least one game, led by Emilio Pagan's 20.
At the dish, the Rays have a cavalcade of players ready depending on whether they face a lefty or righty.
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz was the hero of the American League wild-card game, smoking two home runs in a 5-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics and left-hander Sean Manaea.
He didn't even play Game 4. Instead, first baseman Ji-Man Choi got the nod. He proceeded to walk three times, score a run and handle an unassisted double play to end the top of the fifth.
Tampa also has right-handers Matt Duffy and Michael Brosseau, who started the AL Wild Card Game.
The bottom line is Tampa's depth presents a significant problem, one that could catapult the team to the World Series.
Calculated Risk Backfires as Verlander's Command Prompts Early Exit
It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback and say Astros manager AJ Hinch made the wrong decision to start Verlander on three days' rest, especially after the ace didn't reach the fifth.
However, Verlander is arguably the game's best pitcher, with his league-leading 0.80 WHIP and 300 regular-season strikeouts as proof. He had also struck out 21 Rays over 19.1 innings in three starts (including playoffs) this season, allowing just one run.
Furthermore, the Astros would have been set up perfectly for the American League Championship Series against the Yankees had the Astros won.
League strikeout leader Gerrit Cole, fresh off 15 punchouts against the Rays in Game 2, would have gotten the nod to begin the ALCS. Verlander would have followed suit, setting up both to start twice in a seven-game series if need be.
That obviously didn't work out, as Verlander's command was off.
Jeremy Branham of SportsRadio 610 correctly predicted it would be the game's key:
And it turned out to be the case.
Verlander seemingly missed his spot on the home run to Pham, as the outfielder drilled an 88 mph changeup left out over the plate into the seats:
That was one of four first-inning balls to leave the bat at 100 or more mph, per Jon Morosi of MLB Network:
Ultimately, Houston's bet didn't pay off, but a fully rested Cole will be difficult for Tampa Bay to beat on Thursday.
The Astros will host the Rays for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday at 7:07 p.m. ET.
Per Jake Kaplan of The Athletic, Cole will get the nod for Houston. Glasnow, who started Game 1, will go for Tampa.
If Houston wins, the Astros will host the Yankees for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday.
If Tampa wins, the Yankees will welcome their AL East rivals to the Bronx for Game 1.