Astros have no room for error left

AP Photo HOUSTON’S JUSTIN VERLANDER reacts after giving up a home run to Tampa Bay Rays’ Willy Adames during the fourth inning Tuesday.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Zack Greinke got hit hard. So did Justin Verlander. And all of a sudden, the Houston Astros and their heavyweight rotation have only one chance left to knock out the pesky Rays.

It’s up to Gerrit Cole in Game 5.

Verlander gave up three first-inning runs while pitching on short rest and the Astros lost 4-1 to Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, tying their AL Division Series at two games apiece.

“Even after going up two games against this ballclub, I don’t think we took anything for granted,” Verlander said. “At least I know I didn’t. We know how talented these guys were and are. We knew it would be a battle.”

The playoff will be decided Thursday night in Houston, with Tyler Glasnow expected to start for the Rays. The winner advances to face the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series, while the loser goes home for the winter.

“Obviously, I was hoping to win yesterday. I was hoping to win today. But we’ve had our backs against the wall before and come out victorious,” Verlander said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for the Astros, who led the majors with 107 wins and captured their third consecutive AL West title. Seeking a second World Series championship in three years, they dominated the wild-card Rays behind the brilliant pitching of Verlander and Cole during the first two games at home.

But once they arrived at quirky Tropicana Field, they didn’t look like themselves against the Rays.

“A lot of credit to them for their preparation and putting themselves in this position,” Cole said. “I certainly think they’ve earned it. … They’ve played calm, cool and collected.”

And now, even with all those aces, there’s no more margin for error.

“Welcome to postseason baseball,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “You’d like to eliminate when you have the opportunity. We’re not going to hang our heads.”

Verlander threw seven shutout innings of one-hit ball last Friday in a Game 1 victory. But in his first career start on three days’ rest following a full outing the previous time out, the Rays chased the Cy Young Award contender with two outs in the fourth and a 4-0 lead Tuesday.

Verlander’s dud followed Greinke’s early hook in Monday’s 10-3 loss.