The Tampa Bay Rays headed back to St. Petersburg last weekend with their backs against the wall, down 2-0 to the Houston Astros in the ALDS. Behind the support of a loud home crowd, the Rays took control of their two home games early to tie the series 2-2.
On Thursday evening, the Rays take on the raid boss of the Astros: Gerrit Cole. The probable American League Cy Young winner will take the mound to start game five.
Cole’s season has been incredible. In 212.1 innings he put up a 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and 2.48 xFIP. His 39.9% strikeout rate is that of an elite reliever. It was the fourth highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with 35.0 or more innings behind only Josh Hader, Nick Anderson, and Kirby Yates. His 5.9% walk rate has limited opportunities for opponents to string together threats.
In game two of the series Cole was dominant. He struck out 15 Rays and induced 35 swing and misses. His three primary pitches were all on point. He picked up 16 whiffs of his 64 fastballs. He picked up eight on 31 sliders and 10 on 19 curveballs. He didn’t have to use his changeup much, but picked up one whiff on 8 changeups.
If Cole does what he did in game two there is no real answer besides holding down the Astros offense and play a very low scoring game to give them an opportunity late in the game.
Cole has a fastball that averages near 98 and will reach over 100 at times. He has a slider in the high-80s to low-90s which is his primary swing and miss pitch. His low-80s knuckle curve is a pitch he’s more likely to throw in the zone than get whiffs with. He’ll also throw a high-80s changeup occasionally to left-handed batters.
However not all hope is lost. Cole is only a man, and he does bleed. and the Rays have gotten him twice this year. In the regular season, the Rays were able put four runs on the board in both of his starts against them.
Cole put up a ridiculous 0.89 WHIP this year. He doesn’t give you many opportunities to put together threats with multiple positive offensive outcomes.
Like every pitcher Cole has been susceptible to the long ball. He allowed 29 homers this year and 33 of the 66 runs he allowed scored on homers.
17 of the 29 homers allowed by Cole came on fastballs. They were on fastballs middle to the upper part of the zone.
Eight of the homers were on sliders. Most of them were ones that had a beeline for the middle of the zone.
Four homers came against his knuckle curve. Two were on on curves over the middle of the plate in the lower third of the zone, but didn’t go below the zone. Two were belt high.
If players can force Cole to come over the plate, they’ll have a chance. They’ll need to get a good swing on the pitch, but they can get to him.
The Rays did get him twice with the long ball in the regular season. In the second game of the season Yandy Diaz hit a memorable laser beam to dead center.
In his start in late August, Ji-Man Choi took him deep for a two run shot on a slider that didn’t get in enough belt high.
The game plan that worked against Justin Verlander in game four is how the Rays will need to succeed to tonight. Don’t chase pitches out of the zone. Force the pitcher into the zone and jump on any mistake that you can drive.
The way the Rays win tonight is keeping the game low scoring. The Rays will throw out their own collection of extremely talented arms starting with Tyler Glasnow, and may even bring in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton out of the bullpen.
The Rays will need to take advantage of those mistakes and put up a couple runs against Cole to give them a chance and allow their pitching staff a little breathing room for potential mistakes.