Count ‘em out at your own risk. Down 3-0, it was all but a foregone conclusion that this Houston Astros campaign would end quietly in the American League Championship Series, a round they weren’t even supposed to be in to begin with.
Oh man, have the tables turned. For the third consecutive night, the Astros staved off elimination, this time bludgeoning Tampa Bay with an offensive attack in the middle innings, and then holding off a late Rays power surge to claim their third straight victory, 7-4. Houston is the second team in baseball history to tie a series at three wins apiece after trailing 3-0.
The other? Why of course, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who then defeated the Yankees 10-3 in Game 7, finishing off arguably the most improbable postseason comeback in sports history. Until tomorrow? We shall see.
The Rays led 1-0 after four innings thanks to a second-inning RBI double by Willy Adames, but Framber Valdez was excellent beyond that blemish. He fanned seven batters in his first three frames, the first Astro to ever do so in a postseason game. Overall, the southpaw worked six innings of three-hit, one-run ball with three walks and nine punchouts. It was the eighth time in 2020 Valdez struck out at least eight hitters in a contest.
Framber Valdez, Filthy 81mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/g7ZyaRp3Uf— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2020
Trailing by a run, Yuli Gurriel worked Blake Snell for a walk to start the fifth before designated hitter Aldemys Diaz singled. Rays skipper Kevin Cash removed Snell in favor of ace reliever Diego Castillo, who was a shell of his usual self. Martin Maldonado laid down a sacrifice bunt (the first for the Astros in this postseason), then George Springer beat the shift, simply stroking a ball through the vacated 3-4 hole for a go-ahead two-run single. On the very next pitch, Jose Altuve crushed a slider down the left-field line for a double. Although Randy Arozarena was able to get to the ball quickly, Springer showed off his elite speed by scoring all the way from first. Carlos Correa later plated Altuve with a single, making it 4-1 in favor of Houston.
Kyle Tucker led off the sixth with a solo homer off rookie left-hander Shane McClanahan, Tucker’s first career postseason blast. Valdez faced a sticky proposition in the bottom half when he surrendered a base hit to Hunter Renfroe and walked Yandy Diaz, but he was able to induce Brandon Lowe to bounce into a twin killing, ending the threat.
The Astros broke things wide open in the seventh. Altuve led off with a base hit, took second on a passed ball and crossed the plate when Michael Brantley glided a ball up the middle for a knock. Carlos Correa followed with a double before Kyle Tucker brought in his team’s seventh run of the night with a sacrifice fly later in the frame.
Manuel Margot led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run as he continued his strong series. After a pair of walks by Andre Scrubb, lefty Blake Taylor came in with two outs and got Arozarena to weakly bounce out. This proved large, because Margot once again went deep in the eighth, this time a two-run shot off Cristian Javier to cut Tampa Bay’s deficit to 7-4.
Pitching for the third contest in a row, Rylan Pressly was still up to the task. He punched out Joey Wendle, gave up a base hit to Yoshi Tsutsugo, but was able to get Mike Brosseau to bounce into a game-ending double play.
Despite the Astros holding on to win, the Rays showed they will be anything but pushovers in Game 7, as their dugout continued to show emotion up until the final out Friday.
Houston squandered a pair of early opportunities. Altuve walked with one out in the first but promptly made his second baserunning blunder in as many days, when he was thrown out trying to steal on the back end of a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play. Correa, moved up to cleanup for this game, opened up the second with a single before Alex Bregman grounded into a twin killing. Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel each drew a two-out walk to bring up Aledmys Diaz, who was retired on a sharp grounder to short.
The Astros and Rays will meet one more time on Saturday night, a 7:37 p.m. CT start in the final American League matchup of 2020. Houston is expected to send Lance McCullers Jr. to the mound after he suffered a hard-luck defeat in Game 2 of this series, striking out 11 batters in seven innings while making just two bad pitches, both balls that left the yard. The Rays will likely start Charlie Morton, and as Astro fans are well aware, he was Mr. Game 7 three years ago. If Morton runs into trouble, expect Tyler Glasnow to make an appearance, followed by the stable of relievers that got them to this point.