HOUSTON — The greatest disparity on paper between the two combatants in Game 1 of this American League Division Series rests with right-handers Justin Verlander and Tyler Glasnow.
In Verlander, the Houston Astros will open this best-of-five series with the quintessential ace on the mound Friday against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays. Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA) is favored to claim his second American League Cy Young Award and first since 2011, a span that has included three second-place finishes: 2012, 2016 and last season.
This season, Verlander paced the majors in wins, innings (223) and WHIP (0.803). He will make his 26th career postseason appearance and 25th start, having compiled a 13-7 record and 3.19 ERA. Verlander is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA over nine career postseason appearances (eight starts) with Houston and has limited opponents to a .176 average and .540 OPS.
He has thrived on this stage many times previously, but the Rays pose a unique challenge to him and the Astros.
“Yeah, they have a great team,” said Verlander, who was 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA over two starts against the Rays this season, bringing his career numbers to 10-4 with a 3.17 ERA in 20 starts. “I think they have great pitching. They have a great bullpen. They can match up well just about with anybody in the lineup.
“And, I mean, their lineup is — as you saw (Wednesday) night (in the AL wild-card game), really good and scrappy. They can do all the little things they need to get runs across. They can play the long ball. They can play small ball. They can steal bases. They can find ways to squeeze across runs when they need to.”
The Rays have won each of the last three season series with Houston 4-3 and are 20-14 against the Astros since 2015, the season Houston initiated its run as one of the best organizations in the majors. Oddly, the Astros own a plus-15 run differential over Tampa Bay since 2017, a testament to the Rays’ ability to squeeze out close wins behind their annually stellar pitching.
Glasnow (6-1, 1.78 ERA) will earn the first shot of maintaining that advantage over the Astros in what will be his first career postseason appearance. After missing four months with a forearm strain, Glasnow returned in September and posted a 1.46 ERA with 21 strikeouts over 12 1/3 innings. While he did not record a decision in any of those appearances, the Rays went 4-0.
He has faced the Astros just once in his career, getting the win by allowing one run on six hits in five innings on March 30.
Armed with a four-seam fastball with an average velocity of 97.6 mph plus a power curveball, Glasnow comes fully equipped with the repertoire to hinder the heavily favored Astros.
“The velocity is real,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “His size (6-foot-8), and he can spin the ball and do a lot of different things. He’s got a lot of energy on the mound. He’s got a lot of moving parts. But it’s the pure stuff that he can throw at every hitter that kind of gets your attention.”
For the Astros, there is no comfort opening the ALDS as prohibitive favorites. The same applies to the Rays, who have no intention of resting upon their regular-season success in this series.
“I don’t think the head-to-head matchup plays too much of a role from this season,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “But I don’t anticipate us doing too much differently. We’ve just got to go out there and have good at-bats when any of these guys happen to make a mistake or lack an executed pitch, we’ve got to be ready for it.”
–Field Level Media