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'We got Verlander'd': Can Gerrit Cole turn his name into a verb too?

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Astros may have most potential for October greatness (1:30)

With a number of star performers on the mound and at the plate, the Astros will look to build on their third straight AL West crown with a successful postseason. (1:30)

HOUSTON -- Imagine it from Kevin Cash's perspective.

You spend the entirety of the Tampa Bay Rays' quick turnaround from Wednesday's wild-card win at the Oakland Athletics preparing for a 36-year-old ace who somehow seems to keep getting better. The Rays have beaten Justin Verlander before, but not on this stage -- his stage -- as one of the game's best playoff pitchers. The Houston Astros ace has seen it all and defeated it all.

Still, this is the Rays, the team that prepares for each game so assiduously that every micro-moment feels like an opportunity. Finding a flaw in Verlander's arsenal might be nigh impossible, but if there is a manager and a coaching staff and a cutting-edge organization to do it, it's Tampa Bay.

Then Friday's Game 1 of the American League Division Series begins. Verlander walks the Rays' lead-off hitter, missing with four of five four-steamers. And his velocity is average, so it's not like he is overthrowing. Maybe, just maybe, the Rays are getting Verlander on an off-day. Seven innings later, the sum total of Cash's offense: zero runs, one hit.

And then, on top of everything, during his postgame news conference Cash has it pointed out that he'll have to face Verlander again if the series goes long. The Rays manager is asked if there is anything at all he saw from his hitters that would be encouraging if that comes to pass.

"No," Cash says, snickering. "We got Verlander'd."

That kind of sums up Tampa Bay's predicament. To advance to the AL Championship Series, the Rays almost certainly have to beat a pitcher so dominant that his name has become a verb. Of course, that's just the tip of Cash's rapidly melting iceberg. Consider this set of stats:

Innings: 212 1/3
Record: 20-5
ERA: 2.50
Strikeouts: 326
bWAR: 6.9

Impressive, right? Those aren't Verlander's numbers, though they are a near facsimile of what he accomplished during the regular season. They belong to Houston's Game 2 starter, Gerrit Cole.

According to Statcast data, the hardest-hit ball off Verlander in Game 1 was 97.5 mph. There was only one instance during the regular season in which the Rays failed to hit at least one ball with triple-digit exit velocity against a starter who went at least five innings. That starter: Gerrit Cole, on Aug. 28.

"It's just a fabulous environment to be in," Cole said. "It's just been a blessing to come here and meet all these people and be able to learn from such masters of their craft. The talent in the room is second to none."

The Astros' offense is elite, perhaps the best in baseball. The defense is above average. They are athletic, too, taking advantage of the slow delivery of Rays starter Tyler Glasnow to swipe three bags in Game 1. The bullpen is deep, versatile and solid. But the rotation AJ Hinch is rolling out is what, more than anything, could mark the 2019 Astros as a historically special team.

On Thursday, Astros manager AJ Hinch was asked about his thoughts on Tampa Bay's pioneering use of the opener. If he needed to use it, he'd be all for it. But when your top three are Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke, why even think about it?

"I didn't do this, but [what] I wanted to do in August was text [Cash] and say, I don't know if you're going with an opener, but I'm going with Verlander, Greinke and Cole," Hinch said. "And the same goes for this series.

"As long as I've got this type of top-end rotation, then I certainly firmly believe in the starting pitcher setting the tone and doing all the things that a normal, traditional starting pitcher would do."

Including Verlander's Game 1 gem, and since the Astros acquired Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the deadline, the trio of aces have been dazzling. Their combined record is 24-3, with a 2.19 ERA, 278 strikeouts over 209 2/3 innings and just 34 walks. Each one of their post-deadline pitching lines, extrapolated to a full season, would be Cy Young Award-worthy.

The proven ace is a dying breed. Postseason baseball is now supposed to be about getting your pitcher through the order a couple of times, if that, then turning the game over to a parade of hand-picked reliever-hitter matchups. And as even the Astros have done, sometimes that parade includes heretofore aces, such as Verlander, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw, who have all had crucial relief outings in recent years.

But this current Houston model is straight out of the 1970s -- to an extent. Hinch isn't likely to ride his aces past the point of fatigue -- he has that solid bullpen, after all -- but the intent remains to get those three pitchers deep. If that happens two more times against the Rays, Hinch might be able to postpone his decision on a fourth starter. The two candidates for the job -- lefty Wade Miley and righty Jose Urquidy -- began the series in the bullpen, with Hinch saying the choice would come down to how the series unfolds. For that to matter, the Rays are going to have to beat a Cy Young-caliber starter.

"I think it's not just the pitchers," Cole said. "I think we have one of the best managers in the game. I think we have some of the best hitting coaches in the game. We have some of the best position players. I think the common theme between everybody is communication and the willingness to just get better, however small the detail is."

Verlander has lauded his conversations with Cole, and both have spoken about the thrill of picking Greinke's brain over the past couple of months. It's like a think tank of scientists featuring Einstein, Tesla and Newton, all after they'd already reached respective immortality.

Before the opener, we featured a metrics-based story arguing that the Astros might have the best postseason roster ever assembled. The key metric there was "Active WAR" -- a version of WAR that combines five years' worth of track record and the most recent season.

If you zero in on the Big Three of the Astros, it's no surprise they rank high among postseason ace trios, through the modern era, by combined Active WAR:

TOP ACE TRIOS SINCE 1901

1. 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks (Act. WAR: 19.20)
-- Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Byung-Hyun Kim

2. 1996 Atlanta Braves (Act. WAR: 18.80)
-- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz

3. 2011 Philadelphia Phillies (Act. WAR: 18.60)
-- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels

4. 1997 Atlanta Braves (Act. WAR: 18.01)
-- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz

5. 1931 Philadelphia Athletics (Act. WAR: 17.76)
-- Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, Rube Walberg

6. 1913 New York Giants (Act. WAR: 17.45)
-- Christy Mathewson, Jeff Tesreau, Rube Marquard

7. 1912 New York Giants (Act. WAR: 17.33)
-- Christy Mathewson, Jeff Tesreau, Rube Marquard

8. 1973 New York Mets (Act. WAR: 17.26)
-- Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack

9. 2019 Houston Astros (Act. WAR: 17.20)
-- Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke

10. 1998 Atlanta Braves (Act. WAR: 17.16)
-- Greg Maddux Tom Glavine, John Smoltz

That's some pretty heady company for the Astros to be keeping, but they might not want to keep it. That's because one thing the other members of the top 10 have in common: None of them won the World Series during the season listed above.

That's why when confronted with questions about their elite rotation, the Astros tend to steer things back to the overall team context. They know what history tells us: A power trio of starting pitchers doesn't guarantee a title. It'll take contributions from everybody.

Still, those contributions look a whole lot better when they are piggybacked onto a seven-inning, zero-run, one-hit start like the one Houston got Friday from Verlander. It's the type of dominant performance that Cole has delivered time and again all season, and the type of high-skilled excellence Greinke has delivered since the middle of the 2000s. The Rays just got Verlander'd. Now they have to keep from being Cole'd and then Greinke'd.

Still, it's a nice thing to have your name verbalized, right?

"I don't know," Verlander demurred. "I mean, I guess it's a pretty great compliment. I don't know what else to say, other than that."