Charlie Morton to the rescue, again.
Kevin Kiermaier hit a go-ahead, three-run homer as Tampa Bay teed off on Zack Greinke, and the Rays got another clutch playoff performance from Morton to beat the Houston Astros 10-3 Monday and cut their AL Division Series deficit to 2-1.
Facing the team he helped win the World Series two years ago, Morton allowed one run and three hits while striking out nine over five innings. The 35-year-old right-hander is 4-0 with an 0.95 ERA in four career elimination starts, including last week’s wild-card win at Oakland.
“It’s just what Charlie’s done all year,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s got that knack for doing some special things for us, and he did it again.”
Astros manager AJ Hinch announced after the game that Houston will start Justin Verlander on three days of rest in Game 4 of the best-of-five matchup at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. Tampa Bay will use Diego Castillo as an opener.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the world. No more complicated than that,” Hinch said of Verlander. “He’s ready, and it’s his game.”
Kiermaier got the wild-card Rays going with his long home run in the second inning. Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe added solo shots off Greinke, who has never won in Tampa Bay, and Willy Adames added a solo blast against Wade Miley in the sixth.
Tampa Bay’s four home runs matched a franchise record for a post-season game. The Rays also went deep four times against the Boston Red Sox during the 2008 AL Championship Series and did it again during last week’s 5-1 wild-card victory against the Athletics.
“For us to put three runs on the board, that felt great. That was huge for us,” Kiermaier said. “After that, it’s just, ‘Hey, Charlie Morton, go do your thing, go do what you do.’ And he did just that.”
Jose Altuve homered for the Astros, who are one victory away from their third straight appearance in the ALCS, and had two of Houston’s three hits off Morton. It was Altuve’s 10th career postseason home run, tied with Chase Utley for the most by a second baseman in major league history.
Morton, who won 29 games for Houston over two seasons before joining the Rays as a free agent last off-season, departed with an 8-1 lead. Four relievers finished the combined seven-hitter for the Rays, who have never been swept in a playoff series.
Now, they must avoid being “Verlandered” – a term coined by Cash after the series opener – in Game 4.
“He’s tough. We’ve got to enjoy what we accomplished today and certainly hope we can have better at-bats, production, get something going against him,” Cash said. “We’ll worry about that [Tuesday]. Right now, the guys are pretty pumped about what they just did tonight.”
Verlander, who pitched seven scoreless inning to win Game 1, has only started on fewer than the standard four days of rest once. That was in the 2011 ALDS, when his first appearance was limited to one inning by rain.
“The thought process is five-game series are pretty crazy and we’ve got to win. Never know what can happen,” Verlander said. “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and say if we lose tomorrow, we’ve got Justin and Gerrit [Cole] for Game 5. It’s a crazy game.”
The Astros won the first two games with a pair of dominating pitching performances from Verlander and Cole, who combined to limit the Rays to one unearned run and five hits with 23 strikeouts over 14 2/3 innings. Houston’s other pitchers have allowed 12 earned runs in 11 1/3 frames, an ERA of 9.53.
With Morton on the mound, and returning home for the first playoff game at Tropicana Field in six years, the Rays were confident they would find a way to get back into the series against Greinke, an 18-game winner who was 8-1 with a 3.02 in 10 starts after being acquired from Arizona at the trade deadline.
Kiermaier’s homer to right-centre whipped a sellout crowd of 32,251 waving bright yellow rally towels – more than twice the 14,734 the Rays averaged during the regular season – into a frenzy. The party continued when Choi homered with two outs in the third and Lowe led off the fourth with an opposite-field shot that made it 5-1.
Morton, meanwhile, remained perfect in potential post-season elimination games, including a pair of Game 7 victories during Houston’s 2017 World Series run. He shrugged off yielding Altuve’s homer and throwing 31 pitches in the first inning to hold the Astros potent lineup in check while his offence was building a comfortable lead.
“I’ve seen this out of Charlie,” Hinch said. “When you get him early, get some opportunities early, you have to maximize them if you can. Same thing he did in the wild-card game. He settled in nicely and got them through five innings.”
In six career regular season appearances at Tropicana Field, including five starts, Greinke is 0-4 with a 4.45 ERA. His start Monday was his first at the domed stadium since May 2, 2010, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals. Including Monday, he’s allowed eight homers in 36 innings.