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On Monday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays moved to within two wins of advancing to their second World Series in franchise history with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros. The scoring was relatively sparse, with five of the game’s six runs coming on three home runs.
Sadly, the game itself was at times overshadowed by the passing of legendary second baseman (and former Colt .45 and Astro) Joe Morgan at 77. Morgan was perhaps more famous for his part on the Big Red Machine, but he was also a key contributor during Houston’s early years. Astros manager Dusty Baker, the only manager in baseball to play against Morgan at his peak (Bud Black and Terry Francona, among others, faced him late in his career) and a friend, said a few words about the Hall of Famer before the game.
“He meant a lot to us, a lot to me, a lot to baseball, a lot to African Americans around the country. A lot to players that were considered undersized. He was one of the first examples of speed and power for a guy they said was too small to play.”
But baseball grinds on despite grief, and after Game 2 was done, Charlie Morton had earned his sixth career postseason win, improving his October line to 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 11 starts. While it will go down in the history books as a five-inning shutout, and the ninth consecutive playoff start in which he allowed two runs or fewer, Morton’s start wasn’t anywhere near as neat as you might expect if you only read the box score. The Astros frequently made solid contact but, thanks to the Rays’ defense and a bit of bad luck, failed to cash in on any of their opportunities. Houston left seven runners waiting futilely on the bags through five, only going down 1-2-3 once (in the fifth).
The Astros put 15 balls into play against Morton, hitting them hard enough to combine for a healthy .473 xBA per Statcast. To put that into context, of all the games this year during which the starting pitcher faced at least 10 batters, including the postseason, Morton’s xBA was the 15th-worst. And for the most part, the other high-xBA games were fairly ugly:
Looking at the rest of the top 20, the 19 pitchers not named Charlie Morton combined to allow 90 runs on 109 hits in 39 2/3 innings (with an ERA of 20.42); their teams lost 16 of those starts. In other words, pitchers who pitch like Morton did in Game 2 tend to get knocked out of the game quickly and their teams typically lose. Instead, Morton left after five innings with a 3-0 lead in line to earn the win.
The postseason is known for unlikely heroes and the player most responsible for the Rays’ lead, Manuel Margot, is the latest to find himself in that hallowed role. A player the Padres believed had star potential — as did ZiPS — when the team acquired him as one of the key pieces in the Craig Kimbrel trade, Margot has developed instead into a mostly average piece rather than a franchise cornerstone. But yesterday was at least a brief star turn, as his three-run homer, aided by an errant Jose Altuve throw in the dirt that would have ended the inning a batter before, gave the Rays all the runs they would need to secure the win. And the very next half-inning, Margot’s catch-and-flip over the railing to snag a George Springer foul ball stranded two batters to keep Houston scoreless.[embedded content]
After Margot’s acrobatics and a few scoreless frames, Pete Fairbanks came in for the sixth and continued the theme of getting hit hard, hanging a slider over the plate that Kyle Tucker hit to deep center for a loud out. The next time the Rays right-hander left a pitch dangling in the strike zone, Carlos Correa crushed it 438 feet, plenty long enough to finally put the Astros on the board.[embedded content]
Fairbanks settled down, striking out the side in the seventh, after which Aaron Loup pitched a fairly quiet eighth.
Nick Anderson came in for the ninth and allowed three consecutive singles before getting some relief in the form of a Springer double play groundout, which scored Houston’s second run. Anderson celebrated his narrow escape by walking Altuve on four pitches (including two curves in the dirt) followed by a free pass to Michael Brantley on four more fastballs, setting up the second bases-loaded situation of the inning. But Kevin Kiermaier fielded a deep Alex Bregman liner to right-center to end the threat and close out Anderson’s ugly save.
Watching Lance McCullers Jr. square off against Morton, it was hard to escape the feeling that the former was actually pitching the more dominant game, despite what the score said. There were, for instance, no Randy Arozarena home runs, which I find outrageous; I would like to know the name of the MLB department to which I should send my complaints. McCullers wasn’t mistake-free, however, as neither the Margot homer nor Mike Zunino‘s monster shot in the seventh were cheap dingers. But between the big flies, the Rays struggled to make contact and McCullers finished with 11 strikeouts over seven innings. Rays hitters missed more than half their swings against knuckle-curves and changeups and their 20% swinging strike rate was the second-best of McCullers’ career, bested only by his 12 strikeout game against the White Sox in 2018. The Margot shot was especially painful as the inning would have been over if not for the aforementioned Altuve error, a poor throw and worse scoop by Yuli Gurriel on a play that wasn’t particularly difficult.
If there is a silver lining for the Astros, it’s that thanks to McCullers going seven innings and the game never getting completely out of control, they didn’t have to exhaust their bullpen in a loss. For a team without the pitching depth it had a few years ago, that’s a boon. A small one, no doubt, but it’s better than a loss that also had them burn seven relievers.
The series moves to “Houston” for Games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 5, with the Astros having given up most of their breathing room. It’s certainly possible for the Rays to drop four of their next five games; they did just that against the Orioles and the Red Sox at one point early in the season. But the odds are against the Astros and it hurts to have a very good start from McCullers end up in the loss column. Thanks to his health and an ALCS short of days off, the Astros will only get a single start out of Zack Greinke this round, a Game 4 appearance. ZiPS now projects Tampa Bay as 88% favorites over Houston. For once, the Astros really are the underdogs.