Astros Fend Off Rays to Force Game 6on October 16, 2020 at 2:32 am

Astros Fend Off Rays to Force Game 6

It all started, as it so often has in this ALCS, with a homer — the first pitch from Rays opener John Curtiss, a fastball over the plate, was launched into the seats by George Springer. And it ended with a homer from Carlos Correa, crushed to center in the bottom of the ninth — his third ALCS walkoff in the last four seasons. The Astros, for the second day in a row, won a do-or-die game by a single run, the final score again 4-3. And their deficit in the series, once a daunting three games to none, has narrowed all the way to 3-2.

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How they got there on the pitching side was a little less familiar than it was on the hitting side. The Astros used seven pitchers over the course of Game 5, the first five of whom were rookies. First on the mound was Luis Garcia, 21 years old, with all of 12.1 major-league innings on his resume. Despite some hard contact — a hard fly ball from Brandon Lowe, a line drive from none other than Randy Arozarena — he got through the first inning without allowing a baserunner. Garcia’s second inning was a little more fraught: he loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter for Mike Zunino. But Zunino flew out, stranding all three runners. The inning, and Garcia’s postseason debut, ended without incident.

The stranding of baserunners became something of a running theme throughout the game, particularly for the Rays. Playing from behind, they failed to capitalize on a great number of opportunities. They scored on solo homers — from Lowe, leading off the third against Blake Taylor; from, yes, Arozarena, with one out in the fifth off of Enoli Paredes; and from Ji-Man Choi, clobbered off Josh James to lead off the eighth. But they stranded baserunners again and again, going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, squandering chances to take the lead and end the series.

There was the aforementioned bases-loaded situation in the second. In the top of the fourth, two walks put two runners on base with one out; strikeouts of Zunino and Willy Adames snuffed out the flame. In the top of the fifth, Arozarena’s home run was followed up by an Austin Meadows walk and a Choi single. However, a great play from Alex Bregman on a groundball from Manuel Margot erased what would be the Rays’ last, best chance for a big inning.

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From there, it was a series of lone baserunners, often left standing on first. Zunino, on a single, in the sixth. Margot, also on a single, in the eighth. But the one that will sting the most came in the top of the ninth. With the game tied 3-3, Zunino started the frame against Ryan Pressly with a single through the arms of the diving Correa. He was lifted in favor of pinch-runner Kevin Kiermaier, who, in no time at all, got to advance to second on a wild pitch. The go-ahead run was in scoring position with nobody out, and the Rays’ best hitters were coming to the plate. But Lowe struck out, and Arozarena popped it up, and Meadows flew out — so much for the go-ahead run. Two Houston plate appearances later and the game was over.

The Astros themselves produced little in the way of offense, as one might expect when facing the Rays’ bullpen. Outside of the bookending homers from Springer and Correa, they scored in only one inning. Facing Josh Fleming, the Astros began the inning with a Josh Reddick single and a Martin Maldonado double. Fleming got a soft infield grounder from Springer to record the first out and hold the runners, but Michael Brantley followed it up with a single to right. Reddick scored easily; a better throw, perhaps, could have gotten Maldonado, but Meadows bounced it, and the Astros’ third run scored. They didn’t score again until the ninth — but, thanks to the efforts of their pitchers, they didn’t need to.

The margins of error in this series have been unbearably tight. For the first three games, the Rays have managed to tread that very narrow edge: We’ve seen how games have unraveled for the Astros, with the Rays lineup pouncing on throwing errors and their defense smothering well-hit balls while runners who reached base were consistently marooned, the one big hit never coming. The most runs either of these teams have scored this series was five — the Rays, back in Game 3, when their hold on this series seemed so certain.

Now, after two consecutive 4-3 losses, their foothold on that narrow edge has slipped, and the Astros, still hanging on by their fingertips, somehow haven’t loosened their grip. The little swings of fortune — the lone hit coming at the perfect time; the defender standing in just the right place to make the incredible play — have begun to go in their favor. The Rays, of course, are still in a great position to take this series. But the Astros, who just a few days ago seemed done, are doing their best not to make it easy.

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