In the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s Game 4, with José Altuve on first base, one out, and the Rays already up by three, Yordan Álvarez hit a deep fly ball to right-center field. You’d have been forgiven, in this home run-happy era, for thinking at first that the ball had left the park. You’d similarly have lost not one whit of credibility had you assumed that Kevin Kiermaier, one of the best center fielders of his era, might catch the ball on the run. But neither of those two things happened; the ball instead bounced beautifully off the right-center field wall and hung, for just a moment, in the air above Kiermaier’s head. That was the moment — when the ball hung briefly in stark contrast against dark blue — in which Gary Pettis, the Astros’ third-base coach since 2014, had to decide whether to send Altuve home.
As Ben Clemens pointed out in the game chat, our WPA Inquirer suggests that at the time Pettis made his decision, the Astros would have had about a 28.1% chance of winning the game had Altuve stopped at third, a 17.7% chance of winning the game if he went and was thrown out (which is what happened), and a 29.8% chance of winning the game had he run and scored. That distribution suggests, all other things being equal, that Pettis had to believe Altuve was likely to score at least 86% of the time in order to justify sending him (29.8 – 17.7 = 12.1; 12.1 * 0.86 + 17.7 = 28.1). Given that math, I find it hard to fault Pettis for his choice to run Altuve. It took two essentially perfect throws, from Keirmaier and Willy Adames in turn, plus a terrific tag from Travis d’Arnaud, to get Altuve at the plate by a hair. I know it won’t make the Astros feel better given the result, but it was fun to watch.
But let’s get to the reason the Astros’ odds were below 30% in the fourth in the first place: Justin Verlander. Verlander threw a gem in Friday’s Game 1, striking out eight and allowing just one hit across seven shutout innings. He’s had a terrific regular season, and he’ll be a Hall of Famer one day. But he didn’t have it Tuesday night on short rest, allowing four runs, seven hits, and three walks across just three and two-thirds innings pitched. Craig Edwards anticipated that ineffectiveness for us when he considered the question of Verlander on short rest, noting that in 10 “Low Velo” starts in 2019, in which Verlander’s fastball sat below his season average, his results suffered accordingly: a 4.00 FIP, a 6.4% walk rate, and 1.51 home runs allowed per nine innings.
That wasn’t the problem Tuesday night, as Verlander’s fastball sat near 96 mph throughout his outing. Rather the issue was that he simply couldn’t find the strike zone with his breaking pitches, and when he did — as with a changeup left in the middle of the zone against Tommy Pham in the first — they often didn’t break much, meaning Tampa’s bats found them and hit them. Later in his outing, when he retired six of eight and recorded three of his five strikeouts on the night, he found some success throwing his curveball up in the zone, but by that point the three runs he’d allowed in his first had already sunk his night and his team. Six Tampa hits left the bat at more than 100 mph, and in a season during which Verlander allowed just 32% of his runs on non-homers, half of the Rays’ four runs came on balls that stayed inside the park.
Given that early ineffectiveness, it was somewhat curious that AJ Hinch first got his bullpen going only when Verlander put two runners on with two outs in the second and his team was already down three. Verlander got out of that jam, striking out Avisaíl García, and didn’t end up exiting until near the end of the fourth, but with Gerrit Cole lined up for a Game 5 start, an off day in between, and Verlander clearly not at his best, I would have thought that Hinch might have worked more quickly to stop the bleeding with either Josh James or José Urquidy, both of whom got into the game later. Hinch clearly thought his chances were better with Verlander, or at least that he wanted to try to cover his outs with his starter in a game he could afford to lose. Still, I wonder how things might have gone for Houston if Verlander hadn’t still been around in the fourth to give up a home run to Willy Adames and make it 4-0.
Let’s not give Hinch too much guff for that, though. The Rays did a terrific job throughout the game at putting the bat on the ball and creating trouble for Astros pitchers and the management making decisions behind them. Houston didn’t have a 1-2-3 inning on the mound until the seventh, and Pham, Ji-Man Choi, and García, in particular, each had excellent nights at the plate. It didn’t hurt Tampa’s case one bit that those three men hit back-to-back-to-back in the Rays’ lineup.
On the pitching side, the Rays found success with Diego Castillo as their opener and a succession of competent relievers behind him. The death of the starter may have been greatly exaggerated for the league as a whole but it’s still finding currency in St. Pete. Castillo looked particularly good striking out Altuve with a sinker in the first:
Ryan Yarbrough followed him with two workmanlike innings (helped out by a little bit of athleticism by Choi at first base). That success, and in particular Castillo’s ability to get through the first without forcing Kevin Cash to Brandon McKay, allowed the Rays to play matchups for much of the remainder of the night to remarkably positive effect.
The exception, of course, was Colin Poche and Emilio Pagán’s work in the eighth and ninth innings. In the eighth, Poche allowed a home run to Robinson Chirinos that made the score 4-1. That didn’t feel too consequential until the ninth, when Pagán put Alex Bregman and Altuve on first and third, respectively, after a walk and a single. That forced Kevin Cash to bring in Blake Snell to face Álvarez with two runners on, one out, and an entire season’s worth of baseball on the line. Snell struck Álvarez out with three straight fastballs and a curve, then retired Yuli Gurriel to end the game and extend the series, but his appearance might limit his availability in Thursday’s clincher.
All is not lost for the Astros, who’ll get to start Cole at home on Thursday for Game 5. The Rays will start Tyler Glasnow (who threw in Game 1), though it seems likely Snell will at least make an appearance. Why not, when the season is on the line? Given the pitching matchup and location, I’m comfortable picking the Astros as the likely team to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees, but the beauty of playoff baseball, the beauty of elimination games, is it could really be either squad. That’s what the Rays bought themselves in front of their hometown fans Tuesday night: The chance for another night of baseball, when anything could happen.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.