Aug. 27 MLB Preview — Tampa Bay Rays (76-56) at Houston Astros (85-47)

(Charlie Morton photo courtesy Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Tuesday, Aug. 27, Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas, 8:10 p.m. EDT.

There will be no lack of subplots Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, where Charlie Morton makes his return to Houston for the first time with the Tampa Bay Rays as they face AL Cy Young Award frontrunner Justin Verlander and the Astros.

Morton looks for season double over Astros

Morton (13-5, 2.85 ERA) signed a two-year, $30 million contract with the Rays in December after going 29-10 in his two seasons with the Astros and helping them win their first World Series title in franchise history in 2017.

The right-hander then beat the Astros in his Rays debut March 29, striking out eight in five innings of a 4-2 victory. Morton has taken on the role of staff ace this season as reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell has battled through an injury-plagued 2019, and his efforts are a key reason the Rays are in contention for a wild-card spot as the final month of the season draws near.

“It’s always kind of awkward to face people that you’re friends with,” the 35-year-old Morton told the Rays’ official website Sunday. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re on. It doesn’t matter. It’s just different. Maybe it helped. I think there’s an adjustment to those experiences where it gets easier over time.

“I know I had a real special experience over there, and those guys are important to me,” Morton said. “It’s always been a special place, Minute Maid [Park]. There are guys over there I’m still friends with. I’ll just have to be pitching against them now.”

Tampa Bay entered play Monday holding the second AL wild-card berth and led Oakland by one-half game while trailing Cleveland by one-half game for the first spot. The Rays (76-56) are coming off a disappointing split of a four-game series at Baltimore in which they dropped the final two games after Sunday’s 8-3 defeat.

Rays designated hitter Austin Meadows has gone 10 for 29 (.345) with three homers and four doubles during a modest seven-game hitting streak and belted a pair of home runs in the season-opening four-game series between the teams.

Morton labored to a no-decision in his last outing Wednesday versus Seattle, throwing 99 pitches in just five innings while yielding three runs and four hits before Tampa Bay recorded a 7-6 walk-off victory.

Despite a 7-2 road record, Morton has struggled in his last three outings outside Tampa, giving up 13 runs and 21 hits in 16 1-3 innings while splitting two decisions. His road earned run average has spiked more than a run to 3.02 as a result of that slump.

Prior to facing the Astros in March, Morton went 3-5 with a 5.96 ERA in nine starts from 2008-12 while pitching for Pittsburgh.

Verlander looks to bounce back from loss, move on from media flap

Verlander (15-5, 2.77) put a distinct spin on “tough-luck” loser against his former team, the Detroit Tigers, last time out. The right-hander tossed a two-hitter, struck out 11, and faced just 29 batters, but both hits were solo homers — his season-long Achilles heel — and resulted in a 2-1 defeat Wednesday night.

But the bigger issue for Verlander came post game when it was revealed he instructed the Astros PR staff to bar Detroit Free Press reporter Anthony Frenech from the locker room post-game — a violation of both BWAA regulations and the MLB collective bargaining agreement — for what he said was “unethical behavior in the past” without specifying any incident.

Verlander has not discussed the matter further publicly than his statement on Twitter. While the Astros public relation staff defended their actions, Major League Baseball called the barring of Frenech “intolerable,” but has yet to hand down any disciplinary measures nor said if any are forthcoming.

All the while, Verlander continues to lead the pack for his second Cy Young. Wednesday’s loss ended a personal five-game losing streak, but he also set a franchise record with a seventh straight start with 10 or more strikeouts. He is 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break, striking out 86 in 52 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .181 batting average.

The right-hander also got Houston’s lone win against the Rays earlier this year, giving up — what else? — a solo homer to Meadows and two other hits while fanning nine in seven innings of a 5-1 victory March 28. Verlander is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in three starts against Tampa Bay since joining the Astros but 9-4 with a 3.30 ERA in 19 career matchups.

Houston (85-47) has won four straight and seven of its last eight after sweeping a three-game set from the Los Angeles Angels, capped by Sunday’s 11-2 rout in which Josh Reddick‘s homer highlighted a seven-run eighth. The Astros have gone 16-2 at home since the All-Star break, averaging 6.6 runs and outscoring opponents 119-46 in that stretch.

Notable Trends

The Astros are:

  • 5-1 in Verlander’s last six starts vs. above-.500 teams.
  • 16-5 in Verlander’s last 21 starts on five days of rest.
  • 6-1 in their last seven home games vs. above-.500 teams.

The Rays are:

  • 3-7 in their last 10 games vs. starters with a sub-1.15 WHIP.
  • 2-5 in their last seven after allowing five or more runs in the previous game.
  • 2-6 in their last eight when opponents score five or more runs in the previous game.

*****5-Star Pick*****

Astros UNDER 4.5 runs (-131)

While the expectation is for Verlander and the Astros to win this game, the Rays’ over/under of three runs is just too low to play the under given his track record of serving up homers. Verlander’s mistakes usually result in one run, yes, but in a game like this, it could be the rare time it results in wiping out the margin of error.

Rays opponents have scored four or fewer runs in seven of Morton’s last 10 starts and in eight of his 13 outings on the road. And this is a reminder the under hit in all four games between the teams in Tampa to start the season — and the Astros scored more than four runs just once.

****4-Star Pick****

UNDER 8 runs (-121)

The number came in as expected, which makes the under the play. Those solo homers make for maddening betting involving Astros games with Verlander, but the under has continued to thrive with the right-hander. It is 4-0-1 in his last five starts at Minute Maid Park and 6-1 in his last seven overall as well as 17-5-1 in his last 23 series openers.

The under has gone 4-1 in the last five games between the teams in Houston but has been a dicier proposition with Morton of late — the over is 5-0-1 in his last six road starts and 3-0-1 in his last four versus AL West foes. The hedge is facing his former team brings out the best in Morton and drags Verlander into a pitchers’ duel.

This line did move down to 7.5 runs almost immediately after opening, which makes it a toss-up pick, but the lean would still be under with the expectation Verlander is going to come out focused to move on from the kerfuffle following his last start.

***3-Star Picks***

Astros -1.5 runs (+115)

Verlander has not lost consecutive starts in over a year (Aug. 14-19, 2018, for those curious), and the expectation is that run will continue by getting the better of Morton. While the home runs — specifically the solo shots — continues to plague the right-hander, the Rays entered play Monday 20th in the majors in homers (173) and have hit nine in their last 10 games.

Morton will undoubtedly give him a contest, but his recent road form does not offer belief he will be overpowering — which might be required to take down Verlander in this contest.

Astros -0.5 runs first 5 innings (-136)

This is a confidence pick in Verlander, though both pitchers have been off-note of late. The Astros have trailed after five innings in the right-hander’s last three starts, though in his defense, the score was 1-0 in two of those games. Tampa Bay is 1-4 at the five-inning mark in Morton’s last five starts and 1-3-1 in his last five on the road.

Both pitchers led in the series in Tampa in March, but Verlander gets the nod here as the Astros are 7-4 in his last 11 starts.

UNDER 4 runs first 5 innings (-105)

This goes against the grain to a degree as both pitchers hit the five-inning over in the March series, but Morton has done well to help deliver the five-inning under when the number has been 3.5 or 4 runs, with it 5-2-1 in eight such starts. Verlander has a 2-2-1 in five such outings, and the hedge is each brings out the best in the other to deliver it here.

Rays UNDER 0.5 runs first 3 innings (-105)

A pick that goes for glory here with Verlander, who has not allowed a run in the first three innings in five of his last seven starts. And in one of the two he did, it was an unearned run. This is the risk factor — opponents are hitting .178 the first time facing Verlander, but they have also taken him deep 12 times over his 27 starts. If you’re comfortable with an aggressive play, this is worth a flyer. If not, take the Rays at -136 to scratch out a run.


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