ALDS Takeaways: Rays force winner-take-all Game 5 vs. Astros

The Tampa Bay Rays' Tommy Pham, right, celebrates his home run against the Houston Astros with teammate Willy Adames. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

After the Houston Astros picked up two relatively uncomplicated wins over the Tampa Bay Rays on the weekend, it appeared we may be witnessing sweeps in each American League Divisional Series. But over the last 48 hours the plucky Rays held serve at Tropicana Field to send the series to a fifth and final game on Thursday back in Houston.

That’s for the best. These two teams are awfully good and it’s fun to watch them contest baseball games. Thursday’s elimination game should be captivating. But before we get there, let’s take a moment to talk about what happened Tuesday in Game 4. Your takeaways:

The Rays keep Raysing

Diego Castillo opened for the Rays and did a pretty fine job of it, getting five outs — three via strikeout — on 29 pitches. It was a tricky assignment for Astros hitters, who had to go from gearing up for the right-handed Castillo’s 98-m.p.h. turbo sinker to trying to wade through the off-speed heavy approach of left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, who followed. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Astros didn’t get a runner to second base until the fourth inning.

What follows is a digression. The 25-year-old Castillo is a great example of what makes the Rays so good. They signed him for only $64,000 as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic nearly six years ago and slowly developed him into the flame-throwing right-hander we see before us today. Young pitching prospects like these regularly come cartwheeling out of Tampa’s system, and the ones that don’t end up pitching for the Rays are often traded for current major-league talent.

There’s just nothing like drafting (or, in Castillo’s case, signing as a teenaged amateur) and developing your own players. It’s the bedrock of every consistently successful organization across the game. Essentially, there are three primary ways to add talent to your organization — draft, trade, and sign. And having a strong player development system to produce capable homegrown players is imperative to being successful in the first two methods. You develop the players you’ve drafted into viable big-leaguers and either they contribute to your major-league roster or can be traded for others who will.

This is pretty basic stuff, but it’s always important to remember as we head into the off-season. Fans of every team in every market will soon clamour for management to spend big on free agents (hello, Blue Jays fans). And teams absolutely should. But free agency isn’t how you build a winning roster — it’s how you finalize it. It’s where you get the pieces that put you over the top and supplement the homegrown talent that produces the majority of your wins. If you hope to be a sustainable winner, and not a one-year anomaly, at least.

Look at the Rays and Astros. Of Tampa’s 40-man roster, 37 players are either homegrown or acquired via trade. Only three were free agents. Houston’s 40-man roster? 31 homegrown or traded for, seven free agents, and two picked up on waivers. Even the Yankees — who can afford to spend as much as anyone — have only eight players on their 40-man acquired via free agency. A dozen Yankees are homegrown, 19 came in trades, and one was plucked off waivers.

A team like the Blue Jays that plays in a big market and generates hefty revenues absolutely can and should sign the best talent available such as Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. But for the organization to be successful in the long run, it’ll have to draft shrewdly, find hidden gems on the international amateur market, and purposefully develop those players to allow them to become the best they can be. That’s how the Rays turned a $64,000 commitment in Castillo into an ALDS opener.

Tampa Bay Rays opener Diego Castillo. (Scott Audette/AP)

The difference a day makes

Throwing 32 pitches in the first inning was not the plan for Justin Verlander. But there he was, eight batters into Tuesday’s opening frame, simply trying to contain the damage. The Rays had already plated three, one on a Tommy Pham homer, the next driven in by a Travis d’Arnaud single, and another that crossed home on Joey Wendle’s loud double into the right field corner.

The word ‘loud’ is used purposefully here, because the Rays were absolutely squaring Verlander up in the early going. Pham’s homer was hit 408 feet and came off his bat at 108-m.p.h. Avisail Garcia hit a 111-m.p.h. single after that. Then d’Arnaud and Wendle each came up with triple-digit exit velocity base hits as Verlander’s pitch count soared.

Who’s to say what the exact reason was for all that hard contact, but it certainly didn’t help that Verlander was often working over the heart of the plate, rather than using his excellent stuff on the edges of the strike zone where its most effective.

Nor did it help that Verlander’s excellent stuff wasn’t quite as excellent on this night. The following pitch in particular — a 1-1 slider that Willy Adames hammered 421-feet for Tampa’s fourth run — is the kind of hanging breaking ball that is consistently crushed by big-league hitting:

This is the danger, of course, with throwing a pitcher on only three day’s rest as the Astros were with Verlander. Sure, he’s one of the game’s best and his durability and doggedness is absolutely unquestioned. But he spent his entire season pitching on four days rest or more, his body and mind growing accustomed to that routine and pace of recovery between starts.

Was the short rest the only reason Verlander’s night ended in the fourth, with four runs on seven hits and three walks next to his name on the box score? Probably not. But it’s fair to wonder how much of a factor it played.

As good as it gets

Defensive plays like this inevitably get lost in the fray, so let’s give this one its due:

That right there is just an incredible relay. Jose Altuve’s not necessarily a burner, but he’s a well above-average runner whose sprint speed measured in the 86th percentile across MLB this season. And he has an incredible jump, beginning to round third base as Kevin Kiermaier’s letting the ball go from over 300 feet away. It was going to take near flawless execution to nab him, and that’s what the Rays pulled off, from Kiermaier’s throw to Adames’ turn to d’Arnaud’s tag at the plate.

According to StatCast, Kiermaier threw the ball 87.6-m.p.h. over 155-feet. Then Adames made the exchange from catch to throw in in seven-tenths of a second, covering the final 178-feet to home just in time to nab Altuve. Here’s another look:

All the marbles

All you really need to know about this game occurred within the first four innings, which is what everybody wants in this short attention span era, right? The final five frames were a mildly entertaining slog featuring a steady stream of relievers out of each bullpen entering the game to exploit favourable matchups.

Nick Anderson, the 29-year-old rookie, threw 2.1 innings of stellar relief. Garcia and Pham picked up their third hits of the night. A ball hit a catwalk, as sometimes happens at Tropicana Field. Robinson Chirinos hit an inconsequential solo shot in the eighth. Things got a little dicey in the ninth, as the Astros brought the tying run to the plate with one out, but Blake Snell diffused the situation in his first major-league relief appearance. No one was hurt, which is what’s really important.

Now, these two teams will play for their seasons in one game of baseball on Thursday night. The Astros will have Gerrit Cole on the mound. All he did in Game 2 of this series was strike out 15 Rays over 7.2 innings. You have to assume Tampa will counter with Tyler Glasnow, who allowed two runs over 4.1 innings in Game 1. But with the off-day Wednesday, and the Rays being the Rays, they could always turn back to an opener, as well.

We’ll see. Should be a good one. Elimination games are always enthralling. But if anything, in baseball’s super team era, it’s increasingly clear that MLB ought to reform its playoffs. Shorten the regular season and expand it to include more teams. Make the play-in game a play-in series. Extend the divisional series to seven games, at the very least.

Just do something. Because the thought that an exceptionally elite team like the Astros could see its season end after only five playoff games, or that a crafty and bold team like the Rays could win 186 times over two seasons and get only a half-dozen playoff games out of it, is awfully unsatisfying.

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