With Astros on brink of historic comeback, Rays still have upper hand

Houston Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez had a dominating performance in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays striking out 9 batters and 7 of them on the curveball. Sportsnet's Brad Fay and Joe Siddall discuss both ALCS and NLCS games.

Even as the Houston Astros come closer and closer to completing a historic comeback, it’s still the Tampa Bay Rays who are best positioned to win Game 7 of the ALCS and earn a spot in the World Series.

It might not feel that way after three consecutive Tampa Bay losses, the most recent of which left Game 6 starter Blake Snell ‘disappointed’ that he wasn’t asked to escape a fifth-inning jam on his own. That the normally reliable Rays bullpen allowed five runs only adds to the frustration for Tampa Bay.

For whatever that’s worth, the Astros clearly have the momentum. They now have a legitimate shot at becoming the first team since the 2004 Red Sox to win a series in which they trailed 3-0, and they’re embracing a potential connection with the ‘idiots’ of ’04, watching an ESPN documentary about that team’s epic comeback against the Yankees.

But on a more practical level, the Rays have a better chance at winning Game 7 and claiming the AL pennant. While Dusty Baker’s Astros have been operating from a position of desperation these last three days, the Rays have had the luxury of being more cautious, particularly with their pitching staff. On Saturday, that caution could finally pay off.

Lance McCullers Jr. will start for Houston, and if his stuff is as sharp as it was in Game 2 of the ALCS, the Astros will be in a great position. McCullers Jr. struck out 11 over the course of seven innings Monday, allowing four runs on four hits while touching 97 m.p.h. and generating 20 swinging strikes. Another start like that, and the Astros’ offence would be well-positioned to do the rest.

“We’re relentless,” shortstop Carlos Correa told reporters. “When we said we didn’t want to go home, we really meant that. We want to keep playing baseball and we don’t want this to be the end of our season. We took care of these three games and now we’ve got to take care of one more. If we don’t win that game, it all means nothing.”

Here’s the issue for the Astros, though. If, for whatever reason, McCullers Jr. doesn’t pitch well, their relievers aren’t well-positioned to make up for it. Houston’s bullpen is weak to begin with and its most trusted reliever, Ryan Pressly, has now pitched three days in a row.

In theory, the Astros could turn to Pressly again, as he has thrown just 39 total pitches during those three appearances and never more than 17 in any one game. That’s a big ask, though, since warm-up pitches and pre-game work contribute to the toll on pitchers’ arms, too. Managers almost never ask pitchers to go four times in a row, and even if Pressly offers to pitch there’s a chance his stuff won’t be there.

Sometimes teams can overcome thin bullpens by turning to starters in relief, but Framber Valdez, Houston’s best starter, will presumably be unavailable after throwing 101 pitches in Game 6. Whether Game 4 starter Zack Greinke is available remains unclear.

By way of contrast, the Rays’ pitching staff is far better positioned entering Game 7. Diego Castillo, who struggled after replacing Snell Friday, should be available Saturday after throwing just 14 pitches. Meanwhile, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Ryan Thompson will all be rested. Even Tyler Glasnow could be available after throwing 96 pitches Wednesday.

The Rays’ Game 7 starter will be Charlie Morton, who, like McCullers Jr., has plenty of big-game experience. In fact, McCullers Jr. started the Astros’ World Series clincher in 2017 and Morton closed it out.

Three years later, the Rays don’t need nearly as much length from Morton as the Astros do from his counterpart. The last time the Rays played a must-win game, in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees, Rays manager Kevin Cash asked the bullpen trio of Anderson, Fairbanks and Castillo for 20 of 27 total outs. This time, a similar approach could work. So long as Morton gives the Rays two or three effective innings, their bullpen can conceivably do the rest.

“All in all, I think we’re in a pretty good spot,” Morton told reporters. “But there’s no denying this is a frustrating spot to be in.”

Compared to where the Rays were three days ago, this is a precarious spot, to be sure. Compared to the Astros, it’s still a pretty good one.

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