Zack Greinke and the Astros Survive Game 4

The Astros had their backs against the wall, down 0-3 to a surging Tampa Bay team. For one night, though, they had an ace in the hole: their ace, Zack Greinke, made his first and likely only appearance of the series after two straight days of being pushed back in the rotation.

When Houston acquired Greinke last year, he was a severely overqualified third starter, the delicious dessert after a Cole/Verlander entree. With Gerrit Cole in New York and Justin Verlander felled by a pesky elbow, however, Greinke stands alone among the pitching staff, surrounded by Lance McCullers Jr. and a passel of rookies.

Greinke brought his usual bag of tricks: fastballs in the eighties, changeups with fastball velocity and hummingbird movement, and a slow curve that all other slow curves merely imitate. The Rays struggled to adjust to the funk; Manuel Margot watched four straight fastballs go by to lead off the first, the last three of which were strikes. Randy Arozarena got ahead 3-1 before taking a 72 mph curve for a strike and swinging over a diving changeup, giving Greinke two strikeouts in his first three batters faced.

In the bottom of the inning, Tampa Bay brought reverse Greinke: Tyler Glasnow throws 100 mph, snaps off lollipop curves whose velocity rivals Greinke’s fastball, and tries to do with power what Greinke does with guile. His height adds to the effect; a 100 mph fastball coming from a 6-foot-8 pitcher with an upright delivery gives the distinct impression of a payload dropped from orbit.

Naturally, the shortest player in baseball took him out of the park. Jose Altuve turned on a 100 mph fastball, perfectly placed at the top of the strike zone, and sent it over the left field fence. Things could have been worse for Tampa Bay, even; George Springer had reached to start the inning before being erased when Michael Brantley hit into a double play.

While Greinke continued to cook — he faced the minimum in the first three innings — Glasnow kept making things interesting. He made Houston’s batters look like cardboard cutouts in the second; Kyle Tucker took a seat after watching a curveball that was somehow both sweeping and hard, yet delicate enough to clip the corner for a called strike three; Yuli Gurriel swung at two curves that bounced.

That was good Glasnow; bad Glasnow showed up in the third. He walked Martín Maldonado, the number nine hitter, then got drilled in the back by a screaming Springer line drive. He recovered to retire Springer, but then ran into trouble; he walked Brantley on five pitches, then spun a curveball that didn’t drop to Altuve, who hammered it to the wall in right for an RBI double. Glasnow got Alex Bregman to end the threat, but the Astros were chipping away, taking advantage of Glasnow’s intermittent wildness and predilection for high pitches.

One thing the Astros couldn’t do: slow Randy Arozarena. After Austin Meadows singled in the fourth, the first hit of the game against Greinke, Arozarena went full Randy. Greinke left a curveball high over the inner third of the plate, and Arozarena smashed a line drive home run that somehow traveled 375 feet despite leaving the stadium in a hurry.

It was a poor pitch from Greinke, but contrary to what announcers will tell you, pitchers miss on location all the time. They don’t always get punished for it, but the hottest hitter in baseball, a walking incarnation of bat speed, is not the kind of guy you want to hang a hook against.

Arozarena might be the latest and greatest playoff masher, but Springer has been hitting home runs in October for years. After Maldonado singled with one out in the fifth, Glasnow threw a 2-1 pitch to Springer that was exactly where he wanted it, at the extreme top of the strike zone. In a different situation, it would have been perfect. This time, Springer hit it to La Jolla.

Yes, fine, that’s not even the right direction, and it didn’t even leave the park, though Statcast did measure it at more than 400 feet. Grant me a little poetic license here, would you? In any case, the blast gave the Astros a 4-2 lead, and their high-leverage bullpen arms were rested: the Rays were immediately running out of time.

In the sixth, Greinke ran into trouble. Margot reached on an infield single, Meadows slashed another line drive to right, and just like that, Arozarena strode to the plate with the tying run on base. Greinke showed no interest in challenging him; he didn’t throw a single pitch in the strike zone. He started with two changeups inside, one of which drew a swing, then started picking at the same spot: a fastball low and off the plate inside was fouled back, and another changeup drew a checked swing that first base umpire Tim Timmons — and potentially only Timmons — thought counted as a swing. Arozarena went down on strikes, and Greinke survived the inning despite a Ji-Man Choi infield single.

From there, it was simply a matter of outs and probability. The Astros have Cristian Javier in the bullpen this postseason, and he’s capable of handling multiple innings of relief. Behind him, Ryan Pressly loomed. Javier mowed down the side in the seventh, the only blemish a Yoshi Tsutsugo grounder that deflected off Javier for a hit. He got better in the eighth, striking out Margot and Arozarena en route to a perfect frame.

Dusty Baker saw a chance to grab an extra edge: with Javier dealing, he could possibly save Pressly a few pitches, keeping him fresh for the three subsequent games Houston would still need to win. Just one problem: Javier walked Choi after an extended plate appearance, and it was Pressly time anyway, only with a runner aboard.

That runner almost stung the Astros. With two outs, Willy Adames demolished a ball to the left-center gap. He one-hopped the wall for a run-scoring double, but if he’d pulled the ball ever so slightly more, even spacious Petco Park wouldn’t have held it. Even so, the lead was down to a single run, and Adames promptly took third on a pitch in the dirt. Tsutsugo hits sliders well, and he promptly clobbered one foul; this matchup would be strength against strength, as Pressly has one of the best sliders in the game.

In the end, Pressly won the skirmish. Tsutsugo got a lot of the ball, but he needed about fifteen feet more of carry. Instead, he flew out harmlessly to right, where a triumphant Springer pulled the ball in just shy of the warning track. Just like Baker drew it up, his ace built a bridge to the two best arms in his bullpen, who closed the game out. The plan didn’t have much margin for error; Adames or Tsutsugo could easily have tied the game. For a day, however, and with three of their best pitchers on the mound (if you’re a Javier believer, as I am), they went blow for blow with Tampa Bay and came out on top. Now all they have to do is the same thing, three more times, with worse pitchers and against Tampa’s best starters. Easy!





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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FRL
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FRL

Nice recap Ben! I was a bit surprised Dusty decided to burn Javier last night. I assumed he would be today’s starter after not pitching in the first three games.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

Javier is best in short outings right now and using him last night makes him available for future games if Astros can get past tonight. I think the hope was he could go three last night so Taylor, Paredes, and Pressly could combine for 4-5 innings tonight. Garcia may be able to go 4 innings as starter or bulk guy. Probably only need an inning out of someone else either to bail out Garcia or if one of the better relievers has trouble going more than one.

Pressly having to pitch last night makes things even tougher for the Astros tonight against a great team.

carter
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carter

I agree in a way and also don’t. Javier was the best pitcher in the milb last year across three levels. Yes his stuff plays up in the bullpen, but whose doesn’t? To me if they are going to use him in the bullpen they should have a better option in the rotation for game 4, which they do not regardless of if they win or lose tonight.