The Astros sent a message Thursday night: The road to the World Series goes through Houston and, for that matter, their ace pitcher Gerrit Cole.
Cole was magnificent again, pitching the Astros to victory in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays and setting up a heavyweight matchup with the New York Yankees with a World Series berth on the line. The Astros won 6-1, jumping on Tampa Bay for four first-inning runs then never looking back at Cole’s ever-steady presence on the mound made the Rays looked overmatched for the second time in the series. He struck out 10 batters, an MLB record 11 straight games for Cole with double-digit strikeouts.
Now we get the ALCS that baseball fans everywhere had been looking forward to: The 107-win Astros against the 103-win Yankees, a clash for the AL pennant that might be a more titanic battle than what will follow in the World Series. It’s two teams with potent lineups that can score plenty of runs and dynamic pitchers, although Houston’s start games and the Yankees’ finish them.
It wasn’t the historically dominant performance of Game 2 for Cole — who whiffed 15 Rays batters that night — but it was still really, really good. You can’t spot a pitcher like Cole run fours in an elimination game and expect to move to the next round.
The Astros jumped on Rays starter Tyler Glasnow immediately. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve hit consecutive singles to start the time, Altuve’s bringing the first run in. MVP candidate Alex Bregman came up next and doubled to score two more runs. Then Yuli Gurriel brought home Bregman two batters later. The Astros bats were kept quiet until the eighth inning when Brantley and Altuve hit back-to-back homers.
The Rays, meanwhile, only mustered two hits off Cole through seven innings. One of them was a second-inning homer from Eric Sogard that seemed to immediately answer the Astros rally, but nothing else came from it. Cole struck out 10 on 107 pitches, walked just two and managed to avoid any kind of drama. Even at pitch No. 100 — which notched his ninth strikeout — Cole was pumping 99 mph.
It was everything the Astros could have asked for in a Game 5.
WHO MADE THE DIFFERENCE
• Alex Bregman: He’s the motor that keeps Houston’s lineup moving and he had the biggest hit in this one. He’s no stranger to getting big hits and performing in the postseason. He can add the two-run double to the list of achievements in his already decorated career at 25 years old.
• Gerrit Cole: It’s pretty clear he was the main difference-maker in this game, but also the series. He combined to strike out 25 Rays batters in his two starts and allow just one run. As close as this series was, there’s no doubt that Cole would be the MVP of this series were that an award that was given in the first round.
• The Rays bullpen: Give credit to the Rays bullpen. They kept this game from getting ugly. Seven Rays relievers held the Astros to just one hit between the first inning and eighth, when the Astros hit back-to-back homers. If the Rays’ offense had been able to get anything going against Cole, their bullpen could have been heroes.
The Astros couldn’t do it without the bats too. Here are the back-to-back daggers from Brantley and Altuve in the eighth.
Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve with back-to-back daggers.
The question is whether the Astros benefited from Glasnow tipping his pitches. Camera caught Bregman telling his teammates something about what Glasnow was doing on the mound. A few different ex-MLB players were tweeting in the first inning about how Glasnow has a reputation for tipping pitches. The Astros are smart, we know that, so they could have certainly jumped on the clues they were given.
Since the Rays bullpen did well after Glasnow was pulled, it’s worth wondering whether the supposed pitch tipping cost the Rays a chance to play in the ALCS.
The Astros and Yankees meet Saturday for Game 1 in Houston. The Yankees enter the series fully rested and would have their pick of Luis Severino and James Paxton to start, but manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday he hadn’t decided yet. The Astros would presumably start Zack Greinke in Game 1, since he’d be next in their rotation. Greinke got beat up by the Rays in Game 3 of the ALDS, but the Astros need him to set the tone in the ALCS after having to use Cole and Justin Verlander twice. First pitch is at 8:08 p.m. ET with TV coverage on Fox.
Justin Verlander through his career
Justin Verlander through his career
DETROIT - APRIL 10: Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers watches from the dugout during the game against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan on April 10, 2006. The White Sox defeated Tigers, 5-3. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws to the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of their MLB interleague baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago June 17, 2006. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander pitches to the New York Yankees during Game 2 of their American League Division Series playoff baseball game in New York October 5, 2006. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander speaks as he is announced as starting pitcher for Game 1 of the World Series prior to practices in Detroit, October 20, 2006. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander walks to dugout after striking out in fifth inning against the St Louis Cardinals in Game 5 in Major League Baseball's World Series in St Louis October 27, 2006. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander waves a towel at the fans, that he used to wipe shaving cream off him smeared on by teammate Todd Jones, following Verlander's no-hitter victory over the Milwaukee Brewers during their Interleague MLB baseball game in Detroit, Michigan June 12, 2007. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander winds up a first inning pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the Royals Home Opener MLB American League baseball game in Kansas City, Missouri, April 5, 2010. REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander stands on the field with former Tigers pitcher Virgil Trucks during a pre-game ceremony before their American League MLB baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Detroit, Michigan July 8, 2007. Verlander threw the first no-htter last month in Detroit since Truck's no-hitter against the Washington Senators in Detroit in 1952. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander smiles after he threw a complete game no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays in their MLB baseball game in Toronto May 7, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (CANADA - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander (L) and Victor Martinez celebrate after their team defeated the New York Yankees in Game 5 of their MLB American League Division Series baseball playoffs at Yankee Stadium in New York, October 6, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge (L) and pitcher Justin Verlander watch the action against the Texas Rangers during the eighth inning of Game 6 of MLB's ALCS baseball playoffs in Arlington, Texas, October 15, 2011. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander is congratulated by manager Jim Leyland after pitching a complete game against the Kansas City Royals during their MLB American League baseball game in Kansas City, Missouri, April 16, 2012. REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander pitches against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander heads in from the bullpen for the start of Game 1 of the MLB World Series baseball championship against the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco, October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander celebrates in the locker room after they defeated the Oakland Athletics during Game 5 in their MLB ALDS playoff baseball series in Oakland, California October 11, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander sits in the dugout during the second inning of their MLB American League baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
Apr 8, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander (35) prior to the game against the Minnesota Twinsat Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 5, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches in the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Model Kate Upton (L) and Major League Baseball pitcher Justin Verlander (R) pose at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Art+Film Gala in Los Angeles, October 29, 2016. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 21: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros celebrates with model Kate Upton and the MVP trophy after defeating the New York Yankees by a score of 4-0 to win Game Seven of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 21, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The Houston Astros advance to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 14: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros celebrates after striking out Brett Gardner #11 of the New York Yankees in the eighth inning during game two of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 14, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)