Three years ago, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton combined to deliver some of the most memorable pitching performances in Houston Astros history. They were the centerpieces in Game 7 victories in the ALCS and World Series, combining to record 46 of 54 outs in the two wins as the Astros claimed their first-ever championship.
Flash forward to 2020, McCullers and Morton started opposite one another in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park. The way it looked on paper, McCullers pitched much better than Morton and should have led the Astros to a series-tying victory. Unfortunately for Houston fans, things turned out a little different. McCullers was mostly brilliant but made two bad pitches that were the difference in the game, while Morton consistently gave up rockets that his fielders tracked down all over the ballpark.
Despite seemingly constant scoring threats, the Astros continued to hit into horrible luck against the bullpen, and two timely long balls off McCullers paved the way to a 4-2 Rays victory on a holiday Monday afternoon in San Diego. Tampa Bay has now won the first two contests of this best-of-seven set.
The Rays took a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning with reliable fireballer Nick Anderson on to try and close it out, but Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick and pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz all singled to load the bases. George Springer then hit a rope up the middle where second baseman Brandon Lowe fielded it and started a double play, very similar to the twin-killing he converted in the eighth inning less than 24 hours ago. Anderson then completely lost the strike zone, walking Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley on four pitches each, reloading the bags with two down for Alex Bregman.
The slugger swung at the first pitch and drove a ball to right-center field, but Kiermaier fittingly was there to make the grab for the final out. Overall, the Astros made a whopping 12 outs on balls with an expected batting average of .330 or higher. The game of baseball can be quite cruel at times, and Houston has seen this to the max over the first two games in the ALCS.
It appeared McCullers was going to work a relatively easy first frame. After Randy Arozarena singled with two outs, Ji-Man Choi hit a routine grounder to Jose Altuve, who was playing in shallow right field as part of the shift. However, Altuve’s throw was low and Gurriel could not dig it out of the dirt, resulting in an error on Altuve. This proved to be massive, as Manuel Margot jumped on an 0-1 curve from McCullers and deposited it over the center-field fence for a three-run homer. The ex-Padre Margot hit three home runs in 212 plate appearances at Petco for San Diego last year, and connected on the same amount of long balls in his first 22 trips to the plate this year in his old home ballpark.
Margot was far from done, coming up with one of the plays of the season in the very next inning. With two runners in scoring position and two outs, Springer lofted a fly ball down the right-field line where Margot toppled over the railing but hung on for the grab.
The BABIP gods continued to frown on the Astros on Monday. Aside from Springer’s foul ball being taken away, Alex Bregman’s smash with one out and runners on the corners smash in the top of the first was caught by Willy Adames. In the second, Adames ranged far to his right to snare a bullet, denying Carlos Correa of a leadoff hit. Kyle Tucker made a bid for a third-inning RBI, but speedy Kevin Kiermaier ran down his drive to leave Houston frustrated.
A walk and a hit batter brought George Springer to the plate representing the tying run in the fourth. On the eighth pitch of the battle and 27th in the frame by Morton, Springer ripped a liner that second baseman Brandon Lowe knocked down and threw to first in time.
Morton worked a perfect fifth inning to end his afternoon, but that also came with a pair of hard-hit balls. Altuve was robbed on a tremendous diving play by third baseman Joey Wendle, then Bregman hit a sharp ground ball in the hole at short, where Adames fired across to nab him.
Despite a laborious outing and some lengthy innings, Morton did not surrender a run over five frames while scattering five hits. The Astros forced him to throw 96 pitches, 59 of them for strikes. The exit velocity was 94.4 mph against Morton, who gave up ten hard hit balls by statcast calculations.
Pete Fairbanks took the mound for the Rays in the sixth and Correa broke up the shutout by blasting a one-out solo homer well over the left-center field wall and into Houston’s bullpen. It was Correa’s fifth blast this postseason and 16th of his career, as he continues to inch closer to Derek Jeter’s record of 20 home runs by a shortstop in the playoffs.
After the first-inning home run, McCullers was brilliant, allowing just two hits in his final six frames. He retired 14 batters in a row at one point and ended up with 11 strikeouts while not walking a batter. Mike Zunino’s solo homer with two outs in the seventh was a big insurance run, and the only earned tally McCullers allowed all day.
Through two games, the Astros have outhit the Rays 19-10 but have dropped both. Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers have combined to pitch 13 innings while allowing just three earned runs and whiffing 19 Tampa Bay hitters, yet they have nothing to show for it but two hard-luck defeats.
Give credit where it’s due to superb Tampa Bay defense. And, of course, without the horrific Altuve/Gurriel error on a totally routine play, the Astros would probably have won this game.
Houston will attempt to turn around their fortunes in Game 3 on Tuesday night in San Diego, with the Astros shifting to the “home team.” Jose Urquidy gets the ball after uncharacteristically surrendering four home runs in his last outing, while Tampa Bay is expected to use an opener as part of a bullpen game. First pitch is set for 7:40 p.m. CT on TBS.