The Tampa Bay Rays are the story of the 2023 season so far, and why shouldn’t they be? They captured each of their first 13 games, then followed that up with a six-game winning streak after losing two of three against the Blue Jays and their series opener against Cincinnati. They became the first team since the Deadball Era to win their first 14 home games, leading the league in runs scored (157), OPS+ (143), home runs (48), runs against/game (2.80), ERA+ (154), and WHIP (1.054), and have just looked like ... well, they’ve looked like the 2018 Red Sox did when they won 17 of their first 19 games to launch their 108-win championship season.
And then, the Houston Astros came to town. The defending champs had gotten off to a slow start relative to expectations, posting a 12-10 heading into the Trop thanks to a disappointing offense (99 OPS+) that was still missing Jose Altuve and saw José Abreu get off to a slow start (56 OPS+ in his first 109 plate appearances). On top of that, they had to fly to St. Pete without Yordan Alvarez and his 149 OPS+ due to neck discomfort. Everything was going right for the Rays, and everything wrong for the Astros.
For one day, it looked like the series would play out exactly like that. The Rays lineup battered starter José Urquidy for six runs on seven hits, knocking him out of the game after just 2.2 innings. Taj Bradley, meanwhile, kept the Astros hitters largely in check, allowing just three runs in five innings before handing it off to a bullpen that slammed the door shot.
After that, however, the script flipped entirely thanks to No. 4 starter Luis Garcia ...
... and rookie Hunter Brown.
While the Astros lineup never quite got going, scoring in just two innings across the final two games, their pitching staff absolutely manhandled the Rays. The most prolific lineup in the league was blanked for two consecutive games, with only one of their seven hits going for extra bases (a Wander Franco leadoff double in the sixth on April 25th).
I’m not going to say that the series with the Astros revealed the Rays as frauds. Far from it, in fact — the Rays are a deep, deep team with a power-filled lineup, a strong rotation, and a bullpen that seems to find arms that throw 102 mph within the seat cushions at an Airbnb. Even if they didn’t give themselves a massive head start in the division race with their early winning streaks, they’d still be in a good position to compete for the AL East crown. They are a deep team with a deep farm system, and as such, are veritable World Series contenders.
But, when the Houston Astros came to town, none of that mattered. Dusty Baker’s lineup struggled, and then their pitching staff said, “So what?” and proceeded to throw up nineteen straight zeroes. There’s a reason the Astros have been a staple in the ALCS for six years in a row now: even when the deck seems stacked against them, they find a way to come out on top.
It’s infuriating as a Yankees fan, as the Bombers have been on the receiving end of Houston’s dominance. It’s absolutely true that if the Yankees want to win the division, they’re going to have to run down the Rays this year, and given both their talent and scalding-hot start, it won’t be an easy task (as Josh discussed). And yet the Astros showed this week that, no matter what team records say at the end of April, the road to the World Series—and the American League pennant—still runs through them.