Minute Maid Park roared when Roberto Osuna‘s slider eluded Ji-Man Choi’s bat for the final out of Thursday’s Game 5, but then again, it had already been roaring for some time. The crowd of people within its walls hollered and yelped as their fire-breathing dragon of an ace took the mound to start the game, and they shouted some more as he struck out the first two hitters of the night. When the home team came to bat and scratched across four runs in the first inning, they could barely contain themselves. They bellowed and barked and caterwauled, more quietly in the middle but even louder at the end, watching the best pitcher on the planet today render yet another opposing lineup into silence.
The Houston Astros defeated the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 6-1 on Thursday in an ALDS Game 5 that never really felt that close. Houston’s offense took a commanding lead early, and Gerrit Cole was in command throughout, tossing eight innings of one-run, two-hit, two-walk baseball while striking out 10. With the performance, he managed a combined 15.2 innings pitched in two victories over the Rays in this series, allowing just one run on six hits and three walks while striking out 25 — the second-most over a pitcher’s first two postseason games in any season ever.
The victory advances the Astros into the ALCS for a third straight year, where they will face the New York Yankees with Game 1 scheduled for Saturday at 8:08 p.m. The Yankees haven’t played since Monday, when they clinched a three-game sweep over the Minnesota Twins. The two teams virtually matched each other step for step during the seven games they faced each other during the regular season, with the Astros going 4-3 and outscoring New York just 39-37.
In order to win the ALDS, Houston needed Cole to be sublime. After the 29-year-old right-hander dominated Game 2 at home to put his team ahead two games to none in the series, the Astros traveled to Tampa Bay, where the Rays’ bats suddenly came to life. They chased Houston’s Game 3 starter, Zack Greinke, after just 3.2 innings, and ultimately won that game, 10-3. Justin Verlander’s Game 4 start was just as brief, as he gave up all four runs Tampa Bay needed to even the series at 2-2.
Cole had no such problems. In 107 pitches, he threw 67 fastballs, the hardest of which registered 99.6 mph on his 103rd pitch of the game. He got 10 whiffs with his fastball, six against his slider, and 19 total. It wasn’t the most untouchable he’s been all year — he collected more whiffs than that in 15 different games this season — but he was no less effective, overpowering Rays hitters throughout a game that saw Cole face just 16 batters over his final five innings of work. A solo home run by Eric Sogard — Eric Sogard! — and a single by Choi were the only blemishes against Cole on balls in play during the game.
Gerrit Cole, 99mph Fastball. ?
Reported: Bullying pic.twitter.com/7GGDcVSqS0
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 11, 2019
Gerrit Cole, Filthy 86mph Knuckle Curve. ?
Most Dominant Pitcher on the Planet. ? pic.twitter.com/vydzmufdug
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 11, 2019
Just as aggressively as Cole attacked Tampa Bay’s hitters, Houston’s lineup attacked Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Leadoff batter George Springer swung at the second pitch he saw in the first inning and pulled it to left field for a single. Michael Brantley followed with another single to left, and Jose Altuve smacked a third-straight hit to score Springer. Tampa Bay’s pitching coach went to the mound to talk to Glasnow, but the meeting worked to little avail. Alex Bregman would smash a double to right-center, scoring two more. Glasnow had thrown just 10 pitches, and he’d given up three runs on four hits.
It seemed Houston might be threatening to put up a lopsided opening frame similar to the one St. Louis had in Atlanta just one day prior, but Glasnow gathered himself quickly enough to not allow that to happen. He surrendered one more run-scoring single to Yuli Gurriel before striking out his final two batters of the inning, and he proceeded to retire each of the next five hitters he faced after that. When Tampa Bay brought on Blake Snell to relieve Glasnow in the third, he did so admirably, sitting down all four hitters he faced. Chaz Roe also fulfilled his duties in holding Houston in place, walking one in two scoreless innings, as did Diego Castillo, who worked around a one-out single to pitch a scoreless seventh.
It was exactly the kind of rebound the Rays needed from their pitching staff, but it was too late. In his last 23 starts, Cole had allowed four runs in a game just twice. But that’s sort of besides the point, because to face Cole is to already play from behind. It means constantly trying to make your bat reach fastballs that seem to climb higher and higher on their way toward home plate, unless that fastball is actually a slider that seems to dart out of view completely. It means facing the only pitcher in baseball history to strike out 10 or more batters in 11 straight games. Trying to hit Cole must feel like swinging a toothpick at a golf ball traveling 200 miles per hour. Not once in this win-or-go-home game did the Rays manage multiple baserunners in the same inning. They never even had a runner stationed at second or third base.
Houston finally dented the scoreboard again with back-to-back homers by Brantley and Altuve in the bottom of the eighth against Emilio Pagan. The Astros have scored a lot of those kinds of runs this season — runs that probably didn’t matter much, but that they went ahead and piled on anyway. This was their 37th win this season by at least five runs, after all. Twice they won by at least 20. The game was already in hand when these two homers left the yard, but the players still leapt to their feet and pounded their chests in the dugout. After the final out was made, catcher Robinson Chirinos kneeled behind the plate, raised his arms, and roared. His teammates swarmed the infield, with Cole chasing Osuna, and everyone else chasing Cole. They jumped and hugged and shouted into the night. And within the walls of Minute Maid Park, the night shouted back.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.