In a match-up of crafty 35-year-old pitchers who are no strangers to the postseason stage, Charlie Morton and the Tampa Bay Rays outpitched Zack Greinke and the Houston Astros on Monday, winning 10-3 in Game 3 of the American League Division Series to stay alive.
In their first home playoff game since 2013, the Rays thrilled a rare large, loud crowd by driving Greinke from the game in the fourth inning on their way to a rout of the AL's top seed.
Game 4 will be played on Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
Three takeaways from Rays' season-saving Game 3 win
Greinke goes south
The Astros had every reason to believe Greinke would follow the dominant path carved by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole as he made his first postseason start for Houston on Monday.
The veteran's last regular-season start was his most effective this season, as he allowed just three baserunners and struck out nine in 8.3 shut-out innings against the Seattle Mariners.
And the Rays' offense had been non-existent in the first two games of the series, hitting a combined .177 and failing to score off Verlander and Cole in their 14.6 total innings of work.
But the Rays obviously found Greinke's array of softer stuff a relief after watching fastballs from the co-Cy Young favourites zip by them in Games 1 and 2. The three home runs Tampa Bay hit off Greinke came on a changeup, a changeup and a curveball — each of them traveling less than 80mph.
Those homers accounted for the first five of the seven runs charged to Greinke in an outing that bore eerie similarities to his poor season-opening start. Pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 28, Greinke also allowed seven runs in 3.6 innings, surrendering four homers in the process. No one could have expected what might now end up being his final start of the 2019 season to match his first, but the veteran had no answers for a suddenly resurgent Rays offense on Monday.
Morton proves his worth again
In his second win-or-go-home start of the postseason for the Rays, Morton once again put his team in a position to stay in contention.
After a rough first inning that saw him throw 31 pitches and surrender Jose Altuve's 10th career postseason home run, Morton eventually settled into a groove and kept the Astros' dangerous line-up at bay, holding them scoreless for the rest of his five-inning stint.
While Morton had better stuff on Monday, striking out nine, the outing largely mirrored his effort in the wildcard game at Oakland last week. He surrendered one unearned run in five innings of that one before handing a 5-1 lead over to the Rays' bullpen. Though Tampa Bay's relievers were not airtight in this one as they were against the A's, the offense kept adding on to keep them alive.
Given the Rays must win the next two games to keep their season alive, this could well end up being Morton's final start of his first season in Tampa Bay. If so, he proved a bargain for the $15million the Rays paid him, serving as the anchor of a rotation strained by injuries and providing two season-saving starts when they needed him the most.
Reminder: The Trop can be fun
Ridiculed just about as often as the fanbase that leaves it mostly empty throughout the season, Tropicana Field served up a reminder that it can in fact provide a home-field advantage. All people have to do is show up.
After playing in front of an average crowd of 14,734 during the regular season, the Rays had to be delighted to have 32,251 on hand for the Game 3 matinee. And from the moment Kevin Kiermaier rocked Greinke with that second-inning homer, those fans kept the place roaring with every big hit by the home team.
Though Tampa Bay has continued to enjoy strong local TV ratings even as attendance has sagged, it is rare that fans around the country get to see — and hear — how raucous it can get under the roof in St. Petersburg.
Now we will see if they can do it again on Tuesday for Game 4.