Zack Greinke's dud puts Astros' postseason pitching plan to the test

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. -- The Houston Astros want us to know that it was just one game.

"We lost one game. Not the end of the world," Houston outfielder George Springer said. "We have to come out tomorrow and play hard. Play a little better, see what happens."

He's right. It was just one MLB playoff game. The Astros lost 10-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday but still own a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five ALDS matchup. They play again on Tuesday, which wasn't exactly what the Astros wanted, but if they win, it's all good. They will head into the next round -- against the New York Yankees, it appears -- positioned to line up their Cy Young candidates for multiple outings.

Still, even for the most dominant of teams (and the Astros surely are one), if you're going to end up as the last team standing, you're going to have to pass a few tests. The Astros are facing their first. To pass it, they are going to ask Justin Verlander to do something he has never done before.

We know the setup for Game 3. After the Rays' offense was throttled by Houston co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the first two games, future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke was lined up to close it out. Pity, pity the poor, small-market Rays and their poor, small-market, domed ballpark that no one wants to go to.

Funny thing, though. Lots of people did want to go, and lots of them did. Tarps that had covered upper-deck seats all season were lifted, and human beings filled the folding chairs beneath. They were clad in whatever shades of marine blue the Rays wear and were waving yellow towels and doing the wave and just generally being very loud.

Greinke, the future Hall of Famer, the third of three Houston stud starters, only fueled the Florida furor.

"I thought that the crowd was outstanding," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We saw what the Houston fans did for that club. Feel like ours just did it for ours."

At the outset, it looked like Games 1 and 2 redux. Jose Altuve took former teammate Charlie Morton deep, and the Rays' savior, whom everybody said they wanted on the mound, wriggled and twisted his way through his first two frames, needing 53 pitches to do it. He held his Astro buddies to Altuve's solo blast, but it looked like it might be a short afternoon.

Meanwhile, Greinke looked sharp while cruising through a three-up, three-down first, needing just nine pitches and striking out two. Up in the press box, you could sense national writers eyeing their travel apps: What flights are available from Houston to New York next week?

We should have known better. This is the postseason, and everything can bend on a dime, like a Bert Blyleven curveball.

With two outs in the second, Greinke hit Travis d'Arnaud with the pitch. There were two runners on base. Kevin Kiermaier stepped to the plate. On a Rays team for which attrition is a way of life, Kiermaier is something of a franchise stalwart -- the north star to guide the current generation of Rays fandom. He got the loudest cheers during pregame introductions.

Kiermaier waited out a Greinke changeup that floated middle-middle and launched it to right-center for a three-run homer. That snapped a stretch of 16⅓ scoreless innings for the Rays against the Houston starters to begin the series. It flipped a 1-0 deficit to a 3-1 lead. It raised the Trop volume level to 11. In short, it changed everything. Two more bombs off Greinke followed in the innings to come, then a fourth homer came off reliever Wade Miley. The dam had broken open.

"Even after my homer, you saw [Ji-Man Choi], Willy [Adames], Brandon Lowe, that's kind of how it's been the whole season," Kiermaier said. "We're a team where we can come back too. But when we get ahead early, that's when we're our most dangerous."

The Astros were never really part of the game after Kiermaier's blast. That was mostly because Greinke couldn't overcome his struggles, and Morton did. Morton went only five innings and 93 pitches, but the Rays were up 8-1, so there wasn't a great reason to push for a sixth frame. Now, if the series goes five games, you could easily see Morton return for a couple of innings in a possible Game 5.

As for Greinke, he was chased after giving up six runs and three homers and throwing just 3⅔ innings. It made his spotty postseason record even spottier: His career playoff ERA bloated to 4.58 in 12 outings.

"He didn't execute particular pitches," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "Then when he didn't, they did incredible damage. So it wasn't like, other than [Avisail] Garcia and d'Arnaud, they didn't really get singles. They hit homers, and they did a good job of doing a ton of damage when they got a hit."

In what seemed like a minor subplot in this series, Hinch had been tight-lipped about his plans for a Game 4 starter. The two leading candidates seemed to be the veteran Miley, who started fast this season and then faded badly down the stretch, and hard-throwing rookie Jose Urquidy, who has been inconsistent but has shown the potential for dominance. Still, as the specter of a possible Game 4 became a concern, the chatter turned to Verlander.

Verlander has done it all before. Except this. He will be pitching on three days' rest, and you might think that has happened somewhere along the line, but it hasn't. Verlander threw on short rest during a 2011 ALDS series, but that was after his initial outing was snipped after one inning because of rain. In the 2017 ALDS against Boston, he started Game 1, had three days' rest, then threw 2⅔ innings of relief in Game 4. But he has never started a game on three days' rest after a full-blown start in his previous outing.

"I haven't [done it]," Verlander said. "Closest we came was out of the bullpen a couple years ago in Boston. The thought process is five-game series are pretty crazy, and we've got to win. Never know what can happen. You can't put all your eggs in one basket and say, 'If we lose tomorrow, we've got Justin and Gerrit in Game 5.' It's a crazy game.

"The last couple days, I've felt pretty good. AJ and I have been discussing it. He made the call."

The Astros have been understandably lauded as a near-perfect team after a season in which they won 107 games, outscored opponents by 280 runs and added Greinke, a former Cy Young winner still producing at an elite level, to be a midrotation starter. Sure, the back of the rotation looked thin after a season-ending injury to Aaron Sanchez and Miley's struggles, but that was a minor concern if Houston's trio of aces aced their way through October. Verlander and Cole did, at least in their initial appearances. Greinke did not.

When asked what he might have done differently during his outing, Greinke told reporters, "Yeah, not throw changeups down the middle."

Greinke's say-nothing act has its charms, but it would be nice to for him to let us all see that he cares. Because we know he does -- his teammates of the years have always communicated that much about him. But in any event, it was a day when Houston fans had to be asking, what if? What if the team had been a little more aggressive in trying to re-up with Morton last winter? What if trading for the more expensive Greinke had never been necessary?

It is not that simple, obviously. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow flat-out stated that he wanted to keep Morton. Everyone in Houston loves him ... still. But Morton has a home in Bradenton, Florida, and he wanted to be closer to home in a good baseball situation. Maybe if the Astros had topped the Rays' offer it could have been different, but we'll never know. It was the happy kind of baseball scenario in which multiple parties were acting from a respective unfettered position of free will. Morton, for his part, has already become a franchise face for the Rays, a team for which he has played only one season, and he believes in his new squad.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Morton said. "You'd be hard-pressed to not argue that we're the top-three staff in all of baseball, top to bottom. It's just, we're a great pitching staff, and we're pretty flexible too. These series we have -- five-game series, seven-game series -- I think we're well built to adjust, given any scenario."

Greinke is a great pitcher and will continue to be a great pitcher. His 2019 season, compared to that of Morton, was largely about the same. But the Astros have Greinke's postseason problems to stew over now. And we know that Morton does not carry that stigma. He closed out the Astros' 2017 World Series. He won his fourth career elimination game on Monday, tying the record that Verlander shares and can break in Game 4. Morton is a big-game pitcher, a proven one, and the comfort the Rays felt having him on the mound in Game 3 could have been the Astros' sense of security instead.

This is the worst kind of hindsight. Greinke's dud might have landed Verlander in an unfamiliar place, but he's Justin Verlander. He must conquer a new frontier, but who can doubt that he will conquer it? And if the Rays steal another game, there's still the matter of beating a rested Gerrit Cole in Game 5.

The Astros are facing their first test of what they hope will be a championship run on Tuesday. But it's a two-parter. The first part is dispatching a young, talented Rays team that just got a huge adrenaline shot to its confidence. The second can't be answered until the next round. That's when Greinke will start again, likely against the Yankees, and he will be graded on whether or not the Astros win his outing.

"Charlie showed all of the Astros what he can do, and I think there's no surprise," Verlander said of his former rotation mate. "He's been tremendous in some games when it's all on the line, and so I don't think anybody was surprised that he came out with great stuff today and picked those guys up."

On Tuesday, it'll be Verlander's turn to do the same -- for the Astros. If he does, then we move to the ALCS, and the baton passes to Cole, then back to Verlander. After that, then and only then, when Greinke takes the mound, will we learn if the Astros can pass a test for which there are only two outcomes: pass and fail.