EditorsNote: Rewords first graph
HOUSTON — There was a certain inevitability regarding how Houston Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole would handle his starting assignment Thursday in the decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Cole proved masterful again, striking out 10 over eight stellar innings in a 6-1 win that enabled the Astros to set a date with the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
Game 1 of the ALCS is scheduled for Saturday back at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros improved to 35-8 over their past 43 contests after eliminating the Rays. Houston qualified for its third consecutive ALCS.
Cole (2-0) limited the Rays to one run on two hits and two walks, improving to 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA over his past 24 starts dating back to May 27. The only blemish against him was Eric Sogard’s leadoff homer in the second inning.
Laudatory comments came from every corner celebrating Cole, whose 25 strikeouts in the division series established a major league record. Yet before the Astros could fully digest their series victory over the stubborn Rays, attention shifted to the Yankees, who battled Houston for seven games in the 2017 ALCS.
“Yeah, the Yankees, obviously are a formidable squad,” Cole said. “The AL East, we all know what that division poses with the reigning world champions (the Boston Red Sox), and obviously the Tampa Bay Rays hanging in there.
“They’ve got a lot of talent, a boatload of talent. It’s just kind of how they’re always made. They’re very stoic. They grind out a lot of at-bats. It’s going to be a tough matchup.”
With the Rays’ exceptional relievers having shifted momentum away from the World Series-favorite Astros, Houston executed a first-inning ambush of Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow (0-2) that negated the Tampa Bay bullpen while providing Cole an early cushion.
George Springer, Michael Brantley, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman reached in succession to open the bottom of the first, with everyone excluding Springer delivering opposite-field hits. Altuve roped an RBI single to right-center that scored Springer from third before Bregman added a double that reached the wall in right-center and plated Brantley and Altuve.
Yuli Gurriel capped the outburst with an RBI single that scored Bregman. Houston led 4-0 and matched its combined run output from losses in Games 3 and 4 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“No, no, no. He’s as tough to face as anybody,” Bregman said when asked if the Astros sussed out some imperceptible advantage against Glasnow. “I think if you went around and asked everybody on our team, it was just a team approach today. It was just one at-bat after another.”
Later, after mustering just one hit and a combined two baserunners against the first six of eight Rays relievers, the Astros finally broke through with back-to-back home runs from Brantley and Altuve to open the eighth inning off Rays closer Emilio Pagan.
Altuve socked his third homer of the series and 11th in his postseason career, matching the club record held by Springer and eclipsing the big league mark set by Chase Utley for the most postseason home runs by a second baseman.
That it took so long for the Astros’ league-leading offense to break through against the Rays’ stifling bullpen was a testament to the effectiveness of the unheralded Tampa Bay relief corps.
“I give those guys a lot of credit coming out of the bullpen today,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Every one of them gave us a chance to stay within striking distance. The issue is their guy on the mound was just that much better that we just couldn’t get anything going.”
Cole proved greater than the sum of the Rays’ parts. The Astros bet on that formula all along.
“When you have Gerrit Cole on the mound, we win,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “We have. We’ve kind of proven that.”
—Field Level Media