HOUSTON — In an era when openers are in vogue and they're facing the team who started the trend, everything's coming up aces for the Houston Astros this postseason.
Houston will start Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Tampa Bay on Friday, followed by Gerrit Cole on Saturday night in Game 2 and Zack Greinke in Monday's Game 3. It's a group of pitchers that are arguably the best in baseball and some believe to be the finest collection of arms on one team in the majors in years.
"As long as I've got the type of top-end rotation, then I certainly firmly believe in the starting pitcher setting the tone and doing all the things that a normal, traditional starting pitcher would do ... I love the three at the top of our rotation, and I'll take that model every day," Houston manager AJ Hinch said.
Hinch and Rays manager Kevin Cash have been friends for years, and before the Astros played Tampa Bay in late August he thought about texting Cash to needle him a little about their different philosophies on starting pitchers.
"(What) I wanted to do in August was text him and say: 'I don't know if you're going with an opener, but I'm going with Verlander, Greinke, and Cole,'" Hinch said. "And the same goes for this series."
Despite their penchant for openers, the Rays will go with three true starters in the first three games of this series. Tyler Glasnow will start Game 1, 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell gets Game 2 and Charlie Morton, who got the win in their wild-card game against Oakland Wednesday night, will start Game 3.
Though all three are starters, it's unclear how long Glasnow and Snell will be able to go after both missed huge chunks of the season with injuries. Glasnow sat out from May 11-Sept. 8 with a right forearm strain and pitched just 4 1/3 innings in his last start. Cash said he thinks it's "reasonable" to expect Glasnow to be able to pitch six innings on Friday.
Glasnow came to the Rays in July 2018 from Pittsburgh with Austin Meadows in the big trade for Chris Archer. He said it hasn't really sunk in yet that he'll make his playoff debut opposite Verlander on Friday.
"This is everything you dream about," he said. "You're a little kid, you think about playing playoff baseball. Now that it's here, it's pretty amazing."
Snell, out from July 22-Sept. 17 after arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing elbow, is an even bigger question after he didn't get out of the third inning in any of his three September starts.
Houston's offense is certainly dangerous, but there is little question that the rotation is the star of this loaded team which won an MLB-best and franchise-record 107 games to reach the playoffs for the third straight season.
Verlander and Cole are front-runners for the Cy Young after both put together dominant seasons. Verlander, who threw his third no-hitter this season, won 20 games for the second time in his career and first since winning a career-high 24 in 2011 with Detroit when he won the Cy Young and MVP. Cole set a team record by winning his last 16 decisions and topped the AL with a career-best 2.50 ERA. His career-high 326 strikeouts were the most in the majors and set a franchise record that had stood since 1979 when J.R. Richard fanned 313.
Greinke, acquired from Arizona at the trade deadline, went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts after the trade capped by a gem in his last start when he came two outs shy of his first no-hitter on Sept. 25 against Seattle.
"There's no doubt that their starting pitchers are dominant," Cash said. "We're going to face a guy (Verlander) that's arguably the best pitcher for the last decade and a half, two decades ... 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."
Some things to know about the ALDS between the Rays and Astros:
CORREA READY TO GO
Houston shortstop Carlos Correa is healthy and will start Game 1. Correa missed the last week of the regular season because of a sore back, but has recovered and is ready to return for the postseason.
"I feel great right now, my back feels really good," Correa said. "I had no issues at all during these three workouts."
The 25-year-old Correa played just 75 games this season after sitting out from May 26-July 26 with a broken rib. He missed a month with the back problem, which also caused him to sit out last week.
CASH AND HINCH
Hinch was asked how the friendship between he and Cash developed.
"We were just both poor-hitting backup catchers trying to survive in the game at the same time," Hinch joked before getting serious. "We have very similar beliefs and very similar backgrounds and we're trying to make this magic thing work."
Cash was grateful to Hinch for asking him to be on his staff when he managed the All-Star Game in 2018. And in the meeting with the team, Cash was amused by the introduction Hinch gave him.
"(Hinch) said: 'Why would we not have him here, because he's really the only guy in baseball that likes to use 11 pitchers in nine innings,'" Cash said.
Since the Rays are in the postseason for the first time since 2013, many of their players are getting their first taste of playoff baseball. That's not the case for the Astros who have only a handful of players who haven't played in the postseason. MVP candidate Alex Bregman thinks that playoff seasoning will be an advantage as Houston tries to reach the World Series for the second time in three years after losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS last season.
"A lot of guys have been through the postseason a few times now," Bregman said. "We know what it takes to win, and we're very motivated ... we can't wait to get out there."
At 36 Verlander has put together one of the finest seasons of his career and he doesn't plan on hanging things up anytime soon.
"I kind of pegged this like 45 number," he said. "Whether that's realistic or not, I don't know. I know I'm not going to sell myself short."