Gerrit Cole throws a masterful start to lift Astros over Rays

Astros playoff report presented by APG&E: Astros now lead ALDS 2-0 after 3-1 win over Rays

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

After doing so much of the regular season, Gerrit Cole once again played his part in "whatever you can do, I can do better" in the friendly competition between Justin Verlander. Cole's dominant night on the mound, with a couple of runs behind him, lifted the Astros over the Rays to take a 2-0 advantage in the ALDS before the series shifts to Tropicana Field. Here is our recap of the game:

Final Score: Astros 3, Rays 1.

Series: HOU leads 2-0.

Winning Pitcher: Gerrit Cole.

Losing Pitcher: Blake Snell.

Cole and Snell duel early, but Bregman comes out on top

Like Verlander and Glasnow in Game 1, both the Astros and Rays had trouble with the opposing starter through the first few innings in Game 2. Gerrit Cole and Blake Snell finished the first three innings of the game scoreless, with Cole allowing just one hit and Snell three.

Alex Bregman was able to break the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth, leading off the inning by winning a seven-pitch battle against Snell with a solo home run to put Houston ahead 1-0. Snell would face one more batter before being pulled after 3.1 innings and starting the night for Tampa Bay's bullpen.

Gerrit Cole doing Gerrit Cole things

While Snell had his night come to a close early, Cole was putting together another incredibly dominant outing on the mound. He allowed just one hit over the first four innings before getting the 1-0 lead off of Bregman's home run, then held on to the one-run lead with inning after inning of incredible pitching.

He would later get another run behind him and came to the mound for the top of the eighth with a 2-0 lead. Cole would get two outs into that inning before two baserunners and his pitch count would prompt A.J. Hinch to make a move to closer Roberto Osuna. When it was all said and done, Cole had finished seven and two-thirds shutout innings with 15 strikeouts, a new franchise record in a postseason game. His final line: 7.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 15K.

Osuna makes it stressful, but Houston takes 2-0 series lead

After coming up disappointingly empty after putting runners on first and third with no outs in the fifth inning, the Astros received another chance in the bottom of the seventh. An error put Yuli Gurriel on first to lead off the inning, and then he moved to third on a double by Carlos Correa. After an out, Martin Maldonado came through with an RBI-single blooped into the outfield to extend the lead to 2-0.

With Cole's terrific night coming to an end two outs into the eighth inning, Houston looked to Roberto Osuna to get a four-out save. He got a three-pitch strikeout to end the top of the eighth, erasing the two runners put on by Cole. In the bottom of the eighth, the Astros added one more insurance run on an RBI-single by Carlos Correa, extending the lead to 3-0.

Roberto Osuna then returned in the ninth to finish the save. He would be unsuccessful, loading the bases with no outs after two singles and a walk to start the inning. An RBI-groundout cut the lead to 3-1 and left runners on the corners with one out before Osuna would walk the bases loaded again. That would do it for Osuna, with Will Harris coming in to replace him to try and get the final two outs.

Harris would control the situation well, striking out his first batter then getting a groundout to finish the game. The win put the Astros up 2-0 in the series, needing just one win out of the next three games to advance to the ALCS for the third straight season.

Up Next: Houston and Tampa Bay will have a day off Sunday to travel to St. Petersburg for ALDS Game 3 on Monday. The game will get underway at 12:05 PM Central, and the expected pitching matchup is Zack Greinke (18-5, 2.93 ERA in the regular season) for the Astros going against former-Astro Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA in the regular season) for the Rays.

The Astros playoff report is presented by APG&E.

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The Astros still have plenty of work to do. Composite image by Jack Brame.

As the Houston Astros continue to battle with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets for the best record in the league overall, it's no question they deserve their spot in the top five of MLB's power rankings. They continue to maintain a double-digit lead over the Mariners in the AL West, with a strong chance that they'll lock up the division with plenty of time to spare in the regular season.

At 71-40, they only need to win 29 of the remaining 51 games to reach 100 wins, making it the fourth time in the last five full seasons to accomplish that feat. According to Fangraphs, they have a 100% chance to make the playoffs, a 34.6% chance to make it to the World Series, and a 15.7% chance (third-highest odds behind the Dodgers and Mets) to win it. Yet, even still, some of the team's recent losses are a reminder that there is no room to relax, or worse, slump, down the final stretch.

Don't let the schedule fool you

When looking at the schedule and mapping out how the Astros could get those 29 wins to reach triple digits, there are a lot of soft spots where the team should be able to string together plenty of wins. They have a combined 20 games remaining against the Rangers, A's, and Angels, whom they have gone a combined 24-13 against so far in 2022.

That didn't stop a surprising three-game sweep by Oakland against these Astros at the end of July, dropping those three, which paved the way towards a 7-8 record in their last fifteen games. When not facing division foes, the Astros have several series against teams that will be fighting for Wild Card Spots like the White Sox, Braves, Phillies, and surprisingly, the Orioles.

So while the overall strength of the schedule might not be that daunting, the last thing the Astros need heading into the playoffs, where momentum is paramount, is to have had the chance to power into October with over 100 wins but instead struggle to stay dominant.

Getting the batting order back in order

What has been interesting in the recent stretch of games is that the offense has mostly told the story of their games. On the pitching side, in the current 7-8 game stretch, Houston's pitching staff averaged 3.9 runs per game in losses and an even 2.0 runs in wins. The offense, meanwhile, has a much wider variance, with 2.25 runs scored on average in defeats and 6.57 runs in victories.

They lost by a combined 13 runs in the eight losses, with several one-run losses in that mix. In terms of run differential, in losses, they averaged losing by just 1.63 runs while winning by an average of 4.57 runs. What does all this mean? It means that when they've won, it's been on big nights by the offense, and when they've lost, it's been in games they could've won with a few more clutch hits.

Losing Michael Brantley to the IL since June 26th has undoubtedly hurt the lineup, no question. Still, after the trade deadline acquisitions of Trey Mancini and Christian Vazquez, you would hope the Astros will find ways to get back to a more consistent dominance at the plate than they have shown in the last couple of weeks.

Keep the arms fresh and in the zone

Speaking of the deals the Astros made at the deadline, one move that will probably prove influential as the playoffs near is their trade which sent Jake Odorizzi to Atlanta with lefty reliever Will Smith coming back. Once you get into the playoffs, you certainly don't need a plethora of starters, but having depth at the position in the grueling parts of the season has its perks.

Now, they will form a typical five-man rotation with Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy slotting in every five days, give or take with off days. The change may not be an issue as long as they can continue at their impressive pace, especially if they choose to bring Lance McCullers Jr. back into a starting role once he's ready to rejoin the team. But, they now find themselves with a small margin of safety should a starter miss any time.

That being said, with Verlander at the top of this rotation building his case for another Cy Young and Framber Valdez's league-leading 19 quality starts in 2022 behind him, it feels as though you are nearly guaranteed a strong start two of every five days. It also means you have a pretty potent 1-2 punch for the first two games of a postseason series, which has helped the Astros go deep into October in these recent years.

It's not even the middle of August, which, in all honesty, should make it too soon to be talking about the playoffs. However, with the Astros' dominant start and middle of the year, it remains essential that they don't let things spiral to the point of needing a reset button come October.

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