Astros’ Comeback Falls Short as Rays Advance To World SeriesTony Wolfeon October 18, 2020 at 3:24 pm

Three years ago, when referred to Charlie Morton as an “unlikely” World Series hero, the description was fitting. After nine years in the majors, most of which had come with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Morton had alternated between being acceptable and downright dreadful. Then, in his first year with Houston at the age of 33, he didn’t just pitch the best season of his career — he closed out the final four innings of Game 7 of the World Series to secure the first championship in the history of the franchise. Nobody in their right mind would have foreseen such a responsibility being placed in his hands before the season started, and yet there he was, limiting the Dodgers to one run in a game in which they needed five.

These days, Morton is no longer some big surprise, a novelty pitching far above the expectations anyone holds for him. He’s just a great pitcher who gets the ball in big games because he is clearly the right man for the job. On Saturday, however, the Astros weren’t the team celebrating with Morton. They were the ones who felt his wrath.

Morton threw 5.2 shutout innings while allowing just two hits as the Rays defeated the Astros, 4-2, in Game 7 of the ALCS. With the win, Tampa Bay secured its second World Series appearance in the franchise’s 23-year history, and a chance at its first-ever title.

The Astros entered Saturday having battled back from a 3-0 series deficit to win three straight and force a Game 7, just the second team in MLB history to do so. After being held to just five combined runs over Games 1, 2 and 3, the Astros finally outpitched Tampa Bay with a pair of one-run victories in Games 4 and 5 before unleashing a back-breaking rally in the middle innings of Game 6 to knot the series up. But unlike the Boston Red Sox of 2004 — who rallied from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to steal the pennant away from the New York Yankees and eventually win the World Series — Houston could not pull off that fourth-straight win, a streak the team mustered just once during the regular season.

Trying to fend off a historic comeback, the Rays wrestled back momentum as quickly as they could. With his first pitch of the game, Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. plunked right fielder Manuel Margot, allowing him to take first base. Two hitters later, left fielder Randy Arozarena continued his preposterous postseason hot streak with perhaps his biggest swing yet — a two-run homer to center to push the Rays in front in the opening frame.

After the game, Arozarena was deservingly named ALCS MVP, after the 25-year-old outfielder went 9-for-28 in the series (a .321 batting average) with four homers, a double and six runs driven in. That performance is right in line with what Arozarena had done over the first two series of this playoff run — in 60 postseason plate appearances this year, the rookie (!) has now hit .382/.433/.768 with seven homers and four other extra-base hits.

“I don’t have any words that can describe what [Arozarena]’s done, what he’s meant to this postseason,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “For him to have a bat in his hand with an opportunity for a big home run — really, I think it settled a lot of people in the dugout. It certainly did me.”

McCullers took 29 pitches to finish the game’s first inning, a significant victory for a Tampa Bay lineup desperate to shift the pressure back onto the Astros. In the second inning, it dealt more damage. After a ground-out by third baseman Joey Wendle, catcher Mike Zunino blasted a hanging breaking ball into second deck in left field, giving the Rays a 3-0 advantage.

Meanwhile, the right-hander on the hill for Tampa Bay did nothing but dominate. Morton worked around a two-out single by designated hitter Michael Brantley with a strikeout of shortstop Carlos Correa to end the first inning, which began a streak of 14 straight hitters retired leading into the fifth inning. The 36-year-old has generated higher whiff totals than what he got Saturday — when just seven Astros swings came up empty — but still managed to control the game with exceptional command that frustrated Astros hitters throughout his outing. Of the 66 pitches Morton threw, 48 were strikes. Of the 13 balls put in play against him, just two were hit at 95 mph or harder.

Not even the combination of efficiency and effectiveness that Morton displayed on Saturday, however, could overcome the aggressiveness with which Cash manages his pitching staff. After striking out right fielder Josh Reddick to open the sixth, Morton walked catcher Martín Maldonado on four pitches. He regrouped to quickly jump ahead of center fielder George Springer and force him to ground into a fielder’s choice, then finished a lengthy at-bat against second baseman Jose Altuve with a weak grounder to third base. That grounder, however, was hit too weakly for Wendle to make a timely throw to first, which meant the inning continued.

Altuve’s grounder was terrible contact, and provided no sign that Morton’s stuff was faltering after 66 pitches. Cash, however, was uncomfortable giving the right-hander a second chance to get out of the inning, and with Brantley due up, he promptly summoned reliever Nick Anderson from the bullpen.

“It was pretty simple; third time through,” Cash said. “We value that. We value our process. Michael Brantley is as talented a hitter as anybody in baseball, and if you give him too many looks, he’s going to get to you. The leverage at that point might not have been any higher in the game.”

This was the kind of move that, just the night before, had proved costly for Tampa Bay. In Game 6, after Blake Snell had thrown four scoreless innings, Cash replaced him in the fifth with two runners on and no outs. Four runs eventually scored with the Rays’ bullpen on the mound, causing skepticism in the sixth-year manager’s choise and exasperation for the starting pitcher who was pulled.

This time, however, it worked out. In just two pitches, Anderson got Brantley to bounce out to the second baseman. The escape preserved not only the lead for Tampa Bay, but also a place in history for Morton.

The first time Morton turned in such a performance was in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017, when he threw five two-hit shutout innings against the Yankees to get the Astros into the World Series he eventually closed out. Since signing with the Rays before the 2019 season, he has only strengthened his postseason resumé. Including Saturday’s game, Morton has now thrown 25.2 innings over five playoff starts for Tampa Bay in the last two years, and allowed just two earned runs on 19 hits, nine walks and 29 strikeouts.

To add to the paid of Houston’s failure to capitalize on its opportunity in the top of the sixth, the Rays added onto their lead in the bottom half. First baseman Ji-Man Choi led off the inning with a single, then reached second when shortstop Willy Adames drew a walk. Two batters later, Zunino lifted a fly ball to center, scoring Choi from third.

It took the Astros two more innings before they got on the board. After wasting back-to-back one-out singles with a double play in the seventh, Houston loaded the bases with two walks and an infield single to bring the tying run to the plate in Game 5 walk-off hero Correa. The shortstop came through again, but this time, his damage was limited to a two-run single to right. The remaining runners were stranded on a strikeout by third baseman Alex Bregman, finishing off the last major rally the Astros put together. Despite a single by first baseman Yuli Gurriel bringing the tying run to the plate twice in the top of the ninth, Houston failed to deal any more damage to the Rays’ bullpen.

Over the course of the postseason, the Astros proved rather convincingly that they were better than the 29-31 record they finished the truncated regular season with. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise — the team may have lost its two best starting pitchers from last season to free agency and injury but the offense that built this club into the force it had been over the previous three seasons remained very much intact. The sign-stealing scandal cast doubts over the legitimacy of that offensive success — to say nothing of the team’s title in 2017 and its close proximity to more championships in 2018 and ’19 — but this was still a lineup filled with very good hitters. And it was backed up by a pitching staff that rose to the occasion more often than not.

As much of a headache as the Astros proved to be to both their postseason opponents and the fans who’d hoped to be rid of them sooner rather than later, however, they fell just short of a pesky Rays team that simply took advantage of more big moments in this series. Entering Game 7, Houston had soundly out-hit the Rays in the series, with a team OPS of .795 compared to the Rays’ .663. Including Game 7, Astros pitchers struck out 81 Rays hitters while walking 24; Tampa Bay pitchers struck out 54 and walked 29. Both teams hit their share of homers, and both teams played exceptional defense.

After seven games, however, it’s the Rays who are left standing. They’ve had good enough pitching to get this far for a couple of seasons; now, the offense has caught up some. Their lineup is still a bit behind what the Braves or the Dodgers will bring to the World Series, but it was also behind what the Astros and Yankees had. Those deficiencies haven’t mattered enough to send them home yet, and honestly, I don’t think many of us expected them to. This team won two out of every three games it played in the regular season, and the schedule it faced wasn’t easy. Like the 13-year veteran they called upon in a do-or-die Game 7, the Rays are no longer the plucky unknowns they were a few years ago, reaching heights no one dared believe they could touch. They’re right where they belong.

Thanks to David Laurila for contributing additional reporting to this story.
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