Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole's eight-inning, 10-strikeout gem led the Houston Astros to a 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
Cole, who punched out 15 Rays in Game 2, led Houston to a 3-2 series win and a date with the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
At the dish, four straight hits capped by third baseman Alex Bregman's two-run double highlighted a four-run first inning for the Astros.
Back-to-back solo shots from Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve in the eighth increased Houston's lead. For the Rays, Eric Sogard hit a solo homer in the second.
The Astros led the series 2-0 before Tampa Bay outscored Houston 14-4 in Games 3 and 4 to set up the winner-take-all battle Thursday.
Houston won a league-best 107 games en route to the American League's No. 1 seed, but the MLB's top team got a tough draw in the 96-66 Rays, who entered the series with 21 wins in their last 29 games (including the wild-card contest).
The Astros survived and advanced, however, and look toward their second ALCS appearance in three years.
Rays SP Tyler Glasnow: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 K, L
Rays 2B Eric Sogard: 1-for-3, HR, 1 R, 1 RBI
Astros SP Gerrit Cole: 8 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 10 K, 2 BB, W
Astros 3B Alex Bregman: 1-for-4, 2B, 1 R, 2 RBI
Astros 2B Jose Altuve: 2-for-4, HR, 2 R, 2 RBI
Astros LF Michael Brantley: 2-for-3, HR, 2 R, RBI
Gerrit Cole Near-Invincible Once Again
"He's essentially throwing laser beams, or as close to it as I've ever seen from a human."
That's how one MLB front-office official described Cole to Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight, and the sentiment rang true again after Cole dominated the Rays for the second time this series.
Cole has developed into an ace in Houston after joining the team following five seasons in Pittsburgh. He simply looks unstoppable on the mound, with Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen putting it best:
Sawchik covered a couple of reasons for Cole's dominance. In addition to a "dramatic increase in spin rate," he provided information on a preseason meeting Houston had with Cole in 2018.
"When the Astros sat Cole down for a meeting in February 2018, they outlined how they believed Cole could be a more dominant pitcher. Aided by heat maps, data and video, team officials explained that much of their plan was dependent upon Cole's fastball.
"The Astros showed Cole that his upper-90s, four-seam fastball was harder to hit up in the zone. They recommended that he scrap his two-seam fastball, typically thrown lower in the zone to try to create ground balls, and a pitch type that has been crushed recently."
In conjunction with a dominant offense, that makes the Astros almost impossible to beat when Cole is on the mound.
There isn't a shortage on stats showcasing the ace's recent dominance:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
In the 3rd inning, Gerrit Cole didn't record a strikeout. Why is that significant? Cole had recorded at least 1 strikeout in 73 consecutive innings (reg. and postseason) dating back to Aug. 1. It was the longest such streak in the Expansion Era (since 1961)....by 33 innings.
The right-hander finished his series against the Astros with 25 strikeouts over 15.2 innings, allowing just six hits, three walks and one earned run.
Including the playoffs, Cole has now struck out at least 10 batters in 11 straight starts. The right-hander has also punched out a league-leading 326 batters this season.
The powerful Yankees are up next for Cole, who will likely get the ball for Game 3 on full rest. New York finished second in the league with 306 home runs, setting up a fantastic matchup in the Bronx on Tuesday.
Rays' Phenomenal Season Ends After Taking League's Best To Brink
The Rays' season may have finished in disappointment, but the fact they even took the team with the league's best record to the limit is remarkable considering where they were three years ago.
The bottom fell out on Tampa Bay in 2016 when the team finished last in the American League East with a 68-94 record. The Rays had the second-lowest payroll in the league. The farm system was good but not great, with Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report ranking it 13th at the end of the 2016 campaign.
However, the Rays simply made all the right moves from that point forward despite a dead-last payroll this season that was more than $17 million below the No. 29 Miami Marlins.
The list of expert moves from president of baseball operations Matthew Silverman is seemingly endless, including landing right-hander Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows for starting pitcher Chris Archer, picking up outfielder Tommy Pham in a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and signing right-hander Charlie Morton in free agency.
On the field, manager Kevin Cash expertly guided a deep pitching staff with the opener strategy, helping the team to 90 wins last year and 96 more this season. And the Rays hung tough in a brutal AL in which 97 victories were needed to make the playoffs last year and 96 this season.
Ultimately, the Rays were just unlucky to face a buzzsaw that threw two ace pitchers at them twice each in five games. They still had an excellent season that shouldn't be overlooked.
The Astros will host the Yankees on Saturday at 8:08 p.m. ET for Game 1 of the ALCS. The starting pitchers have not been announced.
The series is a rematch of the 2017 ALCS, which the Astros won in seven games. Houston then won its first World Series in seven more games over the Los Angeles Dodgers.