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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Never-Say-Die Astros Set Up Season’s Biggest Game as Rays Continue Melting Down

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Ashley Landis/Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — This is what a full-fledged meltdown looks like: Tampa Bay starter and 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell being hooked by manager Kevin Cash with two on, none out and a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning—and clearly unhappy about it.

This is what a high-definition meltdown sounds like: Lip readers easily seeing Snell mutter “What the f–k are we doing?” and, “Oh my God, man.” And then the walls to the Rays’ aquarium utterly collapsed over the next three innings with relievers Diego Castillo and Shane McClanahan getting swallowed whole.

Indeed, what are they doing?

Vampires live. One game away from elimination three nights ago, Houston evened this series with a breezy 7-4 cruise Friday, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 in San Diego’s Petco Park on Saturday night.

And right now, Tampa Bay is running low on crosses and looking plumb out of stakes to drive through the heart of this Astros team.

“Oh yeah, we’re not through writing history,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “I’m hoping we can have a happy ending to this historic season, this historic year. There’s been a lot of famous deaths, the coronavirus, living in the bubble, life. There’s been all kinds of stuff [and] this team has battled back, big time.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

“You’ve gotta love this team, some people hate this team, but you’ve at least got to respect this team.”

From the game’s worst cheating scandal since the 1919 Black Sox to the World Series? Tune in Saturday night.

Now, nine innings are all that stand between Houston becoming the first team to erase an 0-3 deficit in a best-of-seven series since the 2004 Boston Red Sox shocked the New York Yankees in the ALCS and went on to win the World Series.

“I’ve heard about their comeback,” said Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker, who was 7 at the time. “If there’s another team that can do it, it’s us.”

Meantime, Tampa Bay, which all but had its reservations confirmed for only its second World Series appearance in franchise history, is one more whoopee cushion of an evening away from historical embarrassment.

It’s getting difficult to watch in here.

“We’ve just got to bounce back,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “This isn’t the scenario we wanted when we were up 3-0 but this is a resilient group. I’m encouraged the offense got going there. We’re going to show up tomorrow like we always do and try to find a way to win.

“No doubt, momentum has shifted. But I would count on this team being very capable of bouncing back.”

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

This is also how the cookie—and Tampa Bay—crumbles: Two batters after Snell’s premature departure, George Springer drove an opposite-field single against Castillo past a shifted Rays defense that scored two runs as Tampa Bay’s lead disappeared for good.

Then Jose Altuve smashed a double off the left-field fence, scoring Springer all the way from first base even though there was one out because Tampa’s Brandon Lowe, making an infrequent appearance in left field, threw to the wrong base.

“Yeah, I was disappointed for sure,” Snell said of his brief, 82-pitch outing. “I felt really good, felt locked in, felt like I had a really good game plan versus that lineup.”

If we could interrupt here for one more brief mound visit: Snell may have felt good and been locked in, but he also walked four of the 17 batters he faced. Of his 82 pitches, just 45 were strikes.

He didn’t have his A-game.

“It’s frustrating,” Snell continued. “I wanted to go deep into that game. I was very confident, even with a walk and ground ball [Aledmys Diaz’s single, Snell’s final batter], I still felt very, very, very, very confident.”

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

By mid-game, it became obvious that the Astros were in the Rays’ heads. Tampa catcher Mike Zunino, furious after striking out in the fifth, angrily snapped his bat in half over his thigh while returning to the dugout. Valdez was carving them up like Halloween pumpkins with his specialty, a curve that bends more than a jack-o’-lantern’s toothy grin. He got 15 swings and misses via the curve—including Zunino’s bat-breaker—the most by any pitcher in the majors this season in a single game, according to the scouting service Inside Edge.

One inning later, Tampa first baseman Yandy Diaz snapped at Astros pitcher Framber Valdez after taking ball four. Yes, you read that right: Diaz was given a free pass and nearly started a fight. Apparently, his complaint was that Valdez was smiling and having fun at his expense. The two exchanged words, and Astros shortstop Carlos Correa darted to Valdez and gave the pitcher a talking to, as if fired by rocket launcher.

Correa admitted he maybe got in his teammate’s face a little too aggressively, but “I know Framber pretty well and he can get distracted too easily when things happen.”

He said he told Valdez, “It is not your job to be the bigger man. Your job is to win the ballgame, focus, get me a ground ball and let’s get out of the inning.”

Next batter? Correa got his ground ball when Lowe bounced into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.

That is what the Rays are up against. Correa has the steely will to win of a silent assassin, and he is an influencer.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Rays? They have the look of a team that is seeing ghosts.

They’ve got one more game to pull themselves out of it.

Can they get it together? Will they get it together?

The Astros, gaining momentum each day, have delighted in playing the role of the underdog. As Baker said before Game 6 when asked if all the pressure would be on Tampa Bay since the Rays had failed twice to close out Houston, not so fast.

“All the pressure’s on us, it only makes sense,” Baker said. “They’ve only got to win one. We’ve got to win two.

“Then, tomorrow, the pressure will be even.”

So it’s almost tomorrow.

But will the pressure be even?

The Rays have lost three in a row and clearly are ruffled.

“They’re frustrated,” Cash said. “We’re all frustrated. But I don’t think they’re tensing up. They recognize they’ve got an opportunity for a fourth time now to do something special.”

Said Zunino: “We take it as a one-game series right now. It’s one of those where if we were in [the Astros’] boat, would it be any different? We’re 3-3 right now and someone’s going to win tomorrow. … We have to keep in mind that we’re still right in this thing.”

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Astros are playing in their fourth consecutive ALCS. And even though missing this year are ace Gerrit Cole (signed with the Yankees as a free agent last winter) and ace Justin Verlander (out for the season with arm trouble), their core is steeped in experience. Altuve, Springer, Correa, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and third baseman Alex Bregman have played in 56 postseason games together, more than any other group of five players in MLB history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Granted, records like that are somewhat muted in this era of expanded playoffs—Babe Ruth and any four of his teammates never had these kind of chances, for example. But still, for modern times, nobody carries more experience than what these guys will bring into Game 7.

Tampa Bay’s best asset on Saturday is that right-hander Charlie Morton will start on full rest. Morton this autumn has become only the fifth pitcher in history to start and win four consecutive postseason decisions (no relief appearances in between) and surrender one or fewer earned runs in each. The others: Curt Schilling (5, Phillies and Diamondbacks, 1993-2001), Masahiro Tanaka (4, Yankees, 2017-2019), Whitey Ford (4, 1960-1961) and Christy Mathewson (4, New York Giants, 1905-1911).

“As much as anybody on our roster, he’s the been-there, done-that guy,” Cash said. “We’ve relied on Charlie quite a bit in his two years with us. I’m not sure if there will be a game bigger than this one to rely on him.”

Cash paused for a bit and chuckled at his own punchline.

It sounded a lot like gallows humor on a night that surely wasn’t about to afford him a whole lot of sleep.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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