What a ride.
As the saying goes, Astros fans, don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.
Who in the right mind expected this team to still be playing on October 17th? Houston defied expectations time and time again this season, reaching the American League Championship Series and not putting their tails between their legs with a 3-0 deficit. Instead, they pulled off three dramatic wins in a row, reaching Game 7 where the magic just ran out.
The Tampa Bay Rays rode an early power surge, dominant starting pitching by a former Astros Game 7 hero himself, and held off one more Astros comeback attempt, claiming a 4-2 victory on Saturday night in San Diego.
Houston came up just short in what would have been a miraculous third trip to the World Series in four years. Instead, the Astros will finish as the runner-up in the American League for the second time in the last three seasons after being overmatched in a five-game series defeat to the Red Sox in 2018.
The starting pitching matchup was a repeat of Game 2 in this series, when Lance McCullers Jr. toed the rubber opposite former Astro Charlie Morton. The two of them combined to toss a three-hit shutout in a Game 7 win over the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS, and then they both carried much of the load in the World Series clincher at Dodger Stadium.
Dueling on opposite sides Saturday, Morton was by far the better arm. He blanked the Astros over 5.2 two-hit innings while tossing 48 of his 66 pitches for strikes. On the other hand, McCullers battled but did not get out of the fourth inning, and two long balls were again his undoing as was the case Monday.
With the Astros trailing 4-0, Aledmys Diaz stepped in to pinch-hit for Maldonado with one out in the eighth and took a free pass. After a groundout moved him to second, Jose Altuve hit a ball deep into the hole at short for an infield single. It was then where Rays manager Kevin Cash emerged from the dugout to take the baseball from Nick Anderson, and Pete Fairbanks came in. Michael Brantley drew a four-pitch walk and Carlos Correa proved huge once again, grounding a two-run single the opposite way, cutting the deficit in half.
2 RBI Single para Carlos Correa ¿Estás viendo el juego? ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/2u92zwW3TO— Béisbol de Puerto Rico (@beisboldepr) October 18, 2020
In the most important at-bat of the season for either team, Fairbanks threw triple-digit heat by Alex Bregman to end the rally and keep it 4-2.
In the home eighth, Blake Taylor and Enoli Paredes combined to keep the Rays off the board. Paredes faced a two-on, one-out situation but got Wendle to bounce to Bregman, who ran to the bag and started a double play.
Tyler Glasnow was warming up in the Tampa bullpen as the eighth inning concluded, but it was Fairbanks who trotted back to the mound to start the ninth. As it turned out, Glasnow was never needed.
Fairbanks blew strike three past Kyle Tucker before Yuli Gurriel singled, just his fifth hit of this otherwise forgettable postseason. Josh Reddick then fanned before Diaz swung at the first pitch and flied to shallow right where Margot squeezed it, ending an Astros season that was truly like no other.
Brantley singled with two outs in the first but was left on, the only baserunner the Astros would have for a long time. Morton kept his pitch count low while mowing through the lineup, retiring the next 14 batters after Brantley’s hit. The closest Houston came to getting someone on base during the stretch was on a slow chopper to third from Alex Bregman in the fifth, where Joey Wendle threw wide but was saved by his first baseman Ji-Man Choi once again performing the splits in acrobatic fashion.
On the pitching side of the equation, it was evident McCullers did not have his best stuff from his first offering, when he plunked Manuel Margot. An out later, Arozarena smashed a sinker over the fence in right-center for a two-run shot, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 edge. Arozarena set a new playoff record for a rookie with his seventh home run of this postseason.
It was not the first time Arozarena has hurt the Astros in the playoffs, as he also did so in the minor leagues - during the 2018 Pacific Coast League championship series when he was a member of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. In the game the Redbirds won to clinch the PCL title over the then-Astros affiliated Fresno Grizzlies, Arozarena knocked in all five runs for Memphis on a pair of homers. Who batted second for Fresno in that game? None other than Kyle Tucker.
Despite having to labor, McCullers did all he could in order to keep his team in the game. He did strike out the side in the first inning despite throwing 30 pitches. With one out in the next frame, McCullers was again bit by Mike Zunino, who launched a solo homer off him for the second consecutive at-bat after doing so in the seventh inning of Game 2.
McCullers was able to keep the Rays off the board in the third thanks to some clever defense by Altuve. With Arozarena on first and one out, Austin Meadows hit a smash that kicked away from Altuve, but he was able to chase after it and shovel to Correa for the force out. Baker lifted McCullers with two outs in the fourth, and Brooks Raley fanned Kevin Kiermaier to end the inning.
Tampa Bay extended their lead to 4-0 in the sixth on a Zunino sacrifice fly, which was sandwiched around crucial missed scoring opportunities for the Astros. With Springer on first and two outs in the sixth, Altuve hit a slow chopper to third and beat it out for an infield hit, advancing Springer to third in the process. Taking no chances, Cash opted to pull Morton and insert Anderson, who retired Brantley on a bouncer to second.
Anderson gave up back-to-back seventh-inning singles by Bregman and Tucker, but Yuli Gurriel’s struggles continued when he bounced into a 6-4-3 inning-ending twin killing on a 1-0 pitch.
In six of seven games in this series, either the tying, winning, or go-ahead run was at the plate in the ninth inning. Can’t ask for much more drama in October. After Correa’s hit, it appeared there could be one more miracle that would lead to the Astros becoming the second team in baseball history to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. Alas, they came up just short.
The pennant for the Rays is the second they have claimed in their franchise history, the last coming in 2008. In that run, they won another thrilling seven-game series, that time over Boston, before falling to the Phillies in the Fall Classic. Tampa Bay will now travel to Arlington and await the winner of Sunday’s rubber match between the Dodgers and Braves. It is only the third time ever (2003 and 2004) that both league championship series reached a seventh and final contest.
One thing all baseball fans across the country can agree on is that there will hopefully be no delays to beginning the 2021 season. There are many offseason questions for the Astros that will be addressed in the coming months, but if spring training starts on time, they will next take the field on Feb. 27 against the Nationals at FITTEAM Ballpark in West Palm Beach, Florida.