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Rays Win Bullpen Game Over Justin Verlander To Send Series Back To Houston

Photo: Julio Aguilar (Getty)

The Rays roughed up Game 1 winner and eclipse lover Justin Verlander Tuesday night, got nine innings of tough pitching from their bullpen, and grabbed a 4–1 win to send their ALDS series against the Astros back to Houston for a winner-take-all Game 5. The Rays, who were widely considered to be chum headed into this series, may not exactly have the Astros on the ropes—they’ll still have to go through Gerrit Cole if they want to advance—but they’ve now won two in a row against the American League’s best team, using wildly divergent pitching strategies.

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It started with a big early push against Verlander, who pitched like crap and couldn’t get out of the fourth inning. The Rays put up three runs on Verlander in the first, and made the 36-year-old righty throw 32 pitches to get out of the frame. Tommy Pham opened the scoring with a one-out dinger to left off a grooved 2–2 changeup:

The dinger seemed to charge up the Rays and unsettle Verlander, who’d just mowed down Austin Meadows on three pitches to open the inning. Verlander subsequently walked Ji-man Choi on six pitches, and then allowed a single to Avisail García on a grooved 1–0 fastball. Two batters later, Travis d’Arnaud brought Choi home with a single to left, and four pitches later Joey Wendle ripped a hanging slider for a double to right, scoring García. That wound up being all the runs the Rays would need in the game, but they tacked on another on a solo shot off the bat of Willy Adames to lead off the bottom of the fourth. By then Verlander had already thrown 72 pitches—when he put Pham and Choi on later in the inning, A.J. Hinch decided he’d seen enough.

Meanwhile, the Rays scheduled a bullpen game for Tuesday, which is bold but in-character for a team that both helped pioneer the concept of the opener, and has one of the best bullpens in baseball. There are teams in these playoffs that would lose by 30 runs if they tried to get nine full innings of relief work (stares flaming daggers at Mike Rizzo), but the Rays are built for this stuff:

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They used six pitchers Tuesday, none of whom threw more than 29 pitches. Diego Castillo was the opener; Ryan Yarbrough relieved him in the second and was credited with the win for his two innings of clean work. When Emilio Pagan gave up a rocket single to left to put runners on first and third with one down in the ninth, Kevin Cash inverted things fully and turned to starter Blake Snell to collect the save. This was a neat turnaround after the five strong innings the Rays got from Charlie Morton to win Game 3 Monday night. They’re expected to use Game 1 starter Tyler Glasnow to start Game 5, in what sets up as a tantalizing pitcher’s duel with Cole, but even if Glasnow can’t go deep, the Rays will be perfectly confident in their best-in-class bullpen, whenever that call is made.

So now the 107-win Astros and the 106-win Dodgers face elimination games to escape their Wild Card-winning foes in the divisional round of these playoffs. This is all very cool and exciting, except that it is about a best-case scenario for the Yankees, who swept the Twins and have some healing to do ahead of whatever comes next, and will now avoid their ALCS foe’s ace pitcher in Game 1 of that series. The rich get richer.

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