ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Houston Astros were the kings of the regular season, winning 107 games, the most in baseball. Then they opened their division series against the Tampa Bay Rays with two more wins, enhancing their standing as the favorites to capture the American League pennant, if not win the World Series.
But now Houston is in peril of failing to advance out of the first round.
The pesky Tampa Bay Rays pounded Justin Verlander and played nearly perfect baseball to beat the mighty Astros, 4-1, in Game 4 of their American League division series on Tuesday, evening the series at two wins apiece.
A winner-take-all Game 5 will be played on Thursday in Houston, where Gerrit Cole, who struck out 15 batters in Game 2, is expected to start for the Astros against Tyler Glasnow.
“We played better at home this year,” Robinson Chirinos, the Houston catcher, said. “Thank God we won home field advantage for the regular season. Going back home for the fifth game is huge for us.”
Though no victor has been determined in this series, another team has already taken a win from it.
The Yankees, who completed a breezy sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Monday, can relax at home, rest their relievers and line up their starting pitchers while their next opponent is forced to slug it out for one more game. And if the Rays win, the Yankees, with 103 regular season wins, would gain home field advantage for the American League Championship Series.
The Rays used a series of six pitchers — five relievers before closing out with the starter Blake Snell — and played stellar defense on Tuesday. Snell, the winner of the 2018 A.L. Cy Young Award, was summoned for a dicey situation in the ninth, with runners at first and third and one out. He struck out Yordan Alvarez and got Yuli Gurriel to hit a bouncer to second to earn the save.
The Astros hitters did nothing of note against the string of Tampa Bay relievers until Chirinos homered off Colin Poche in the eighth.
The Astros had banked on Verlander to close out the series and avoid more complications, but he was chased in the fourth inning, having surrendered four runs.
Choosing Verlander was a bit of a gamble for Houston Manager A.J. Hinch. Verlander had pitched Game 1 on Friday and was taking the ball on short rest — three days off instead of the customary four.
He had pitched on short rest twice before, but both appearances came in unusual circumstances. During Game 4 of the 2017 A.L.D.S. against the Boston Red Sox, Verlander pitched two and two-thirds innings in relief to help the Astros clinch that series. In 2011, he started Game 1 of a division series for the Detroit Tigers against the Yankees, but that game was rained out in the second inning. Verlander threw only 25 pitches that night, so he started again in Game 3, on only two days of rest, and won with eight strong innings.
He has never been asked to pitch on short rest in the regular season.
“Closest we came was out of the bullpen a couple years ago in Boston,” he said after the Astros lost Game 3 on Monday. “The thought process is, five-game series are pretty crazy and we’ve got to win.”
But the Rays wasted no time in wrecking the Astros’ plan. They scored three runs in the first inning and, just as important, forced Verlander to labor. He lasted only three and two-thirds innings and threw 84 pitches. Two of the four runs he surrendered came on solo home runs by Tommy Pham and Willy Adames.
Verlander said he did not know if the short rest had made the difference, but he struggled with control of his pitches, particularly the slider.
“I felt like the velocity was there,” he said, “but the control wasn’t and the slider wasn’t.”
Verlander threw 32 pitches in the first inning, and only two balls were hit hard. But the unrelenting Rays kept fouling off pitches and forced Verlander into long counts. Pham homered on a line drive to left field, and much of the crowd of 32,178 at Tropicana Field erupted. When Verlander walked the fan favorite Ji-Man Choi, the noise level grew deafening.
Tampa Bay became the first team to score three runs in the first inning of a postseason game against Verlander, who has started 26 times in the playoffs.
If the Rays win Game 5, this will have been Verlander’s last game of the season. If the Astros win, Verlander will most likely start Game 2 of the A.L.C.S.
The Rays had flashes of brilliant defense, including a relay executed to such perfection that it seemed to suggest this was Tampa Bay’s night. Jose Altuve was on first base after a leadoff single in the fourth inning, and one out later Alvarez drove a ball to deep center field. Kevin Kiermaier played the ball cleanly off the wall and, with Altuve sprinting around third, fired the ball to the shortstop, Adames, in shallow center. Adames spun and threw a laser to catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who tagged Altuve out.
“That was probably the biggest play of the game,” said Rays Manager Kevin Cash. “I mean, you cannot execute a relay better than that.”
Choi also showed strong defense at first base. In the second inning, he snared a hot line drive off the bat of Josh Reddick with two outs and a runner on first. Reddick slammed his helmet to the ground in a show of frustration that would only grow.
Now the Astros, once considered the biggest obstacle to the Yankees’ reaching the World Series, are one loss away from elimination.