OAKLAND, Calif. — Major league hitters shattered the single-season record for home runs this year, so the start of the wild-card games was fitting. In both of them, a ball cleared an outfield fence before the first out.
It was Yandy Diaz, the Tampa Bay Rays’ muscular leadoff man, on Wednesday who drove a fastball from the Oakland Athletics’ Sean Manaea over the right-field wall at the Coliseum. Diaz did it again in the third inning, between homers by his teammates Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham.
“They kind of beat us with our game,” said Bob Melvin, the Oakland manager, after the Rays’ 5-1 victory. “We’re normally a home-run-hitting team, and we couldn’t do much.”
The A’s hit the fifth-most homers in the majors this season, but on Wednesday they scored their only run on a three-base throwing error and a sacrifice fly. They managed no extra-base hits off Charlie Morton and three relievers, which should not have been surprising: no pitching staff unplugs offense quite like Tampa Bay’s.
The victory earned the Rays a trip to Houston’s Minute Maid Park, where the mighty Astros await in an American League division series that starts Friday afternoon. Justin Verlander will start Game 1 for Houston, with Gerrit Cole lined up for Game 2 and Zack Greinke for Game 3. It is the most imposing top three pitching lineup in the majors.
“They’re such a good team, they’re so dynamic offensively and they probably have the best pitching staff,” Pham conceded. “But we match up with them, pitching-wise, really well.”
In the year of the homer, the Rays’ staff was the best in the majors at keeping the ball in the park. Tampa Bay pitchers allowed only 181 home runs, compared to 230 by Houston pitchers. They also ranked third in strikeouts with 1,621, behind only the Astros and the Boston Red Sox.
“They have a lot of guys that throw really hard, and they’re all different in their own right, which makes it difficult with how quick they are to the plate, how quick their arm is,” Oakland’s Mark Canha said of the Rays, after striking out twice on Wednesday. “Trying to have a different plan for each guy, you’re just kind of spinning your wheels.”
Only the Los Angeles Dodgers had a better earned run average than the Rays’ 3.65. The Astros were just a point higher, and the best way to beat them is with the blueprint the Rays used here: the home run.
The Astros’ staff allowed just 7.4 hits per nine innings, the fewest in the majors. But Verlander, Cole and Greinke did serve up 86 homers — 36 by Verlander, including one to the first batter he faced on opening day: the Rays’ Austin Meadows. Cole allowed homers this season to Diaz and Ji-Man Choi, and Greinke to Meadows and Travis d’Arnaud.
“If we can provide enough offense to get ahead in the game and hand over the game to our bullpen, we have a shot,” said the Rays’ infielder Matt Duffy. “We rely on our pitching. That’s our strength of our team. They’re going to carry us most days.”
Besides Morton, who threw nearly 200 innings, the Rays will probably not push anyone beyond 75 pitches. Tyler Glasnow will start Game 1 and Blake Snell Game 2, but both dealt with injuries for much of the second half, and neither reached five innings or 70 pitches in September.
Even so, the Rays will take what they can get: Glasnow had a 1.78 E.R.A. in 12 starts this season, and Snell beat out Verlander for the A.L. Cy Young Award last season.
“We have all the confidence in the world in our bullpen and our starting pitching,” said the pitching coach, Kyle Snyder. “They’ve done a tremendous job all year — whether it’s preventing home runs or striking people out. I feel like we can measure up very well against that club.”
Though Morton needed 94 pitches to survive five innings on Wednesday, he pumped 98 mile-an-hour fastballs in the first inning and later induced two double plays. The A’s managed no earned runs off Morton and looked feeble against the relievers Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Emilio Pagan, fanning eight times in the last four innings.
Anderson — a former independent leaguer who arrived from Miami in a trade this July — has struck out 45 of the 83 batters he has faced with the Rays. Pagan has thrived with impeccable control: 38 strikeouts and one walk since July 30.
“Look, the Rays match up as well as anybody in baseball, and they use their entire 25-man roster,” Melvin said. “They have terrific starting pitching. They have a great bullpen. They’re going to give any team a problem.”
In the Astros, though, the Rays will encounter an extreme contact team that also slugs. The Astros’ hitters had the fewest strikeouts and the highest slugging percentage in the majors this season — just as they did in 2017, when they won the World Series.
This Houston offense is even deeper, with the rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez and the All-Star Michael Brantley added to the core of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and George Springer. The Rays are used to facing powerful lineups in the A.L. East, but the Astros will be their toughest challenge.
“It’s going to take everything we’ve got to silence them,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations, as he watched his team celebrate in the clubhouse Wednesday night. “We’ve seen throughout the season and tonight, when our pitchers are on top of their game, we’ll put them up against anybody.”