ALCS Takeaways: Rays finally close lid on Astros to earn World Series berth

The Tampa Bay Rays held on to beat the Houston Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, ending Houston's bid to become the second team in baseball history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a postseason series.

It took them long enough, but the Tampa Bay Rays finally closed the lid on the Houston Astros in the ALCS Saturday night with a 4-2 Game 7 victory.

Of course, it didn’t have to be like this. The Rays were up 3-0 in the series and flirted with a historic collapse by allowing the Astros to force a seventh game in the first place. But that short sells a talented Houston club that, trash cans or not, is far from an easy playoff out.

The Astros actually out-hit the Rays, 59-44, in the series and were only outscored by three cumulative runs over the seven games. They brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 7 and were truly only an errant throw, a booted ball, or a wild pitch away from a different result in any of their four losses.

But that’s the maddening thing about playing the Rays — they don’t beat themselves. They pitch phenomenally, they play crisp defence, and they’re managed with a deft touch. Whichever team they contest the World Series with will be in for a tough test.

The Rays and the rest of us will learn that opponent Sunday night. For now, here are your takeaways from a tightly played game which served a suiting end to a suspenseful series.

Randy stays hot

Entering Game 7, Randy Arozarena was already the breakout star of the post-season. Then, a dozen pitches into the bottom half of the first inning, he went and did this:

That was Arozarena’s seventh homer of these playoffs, setting an MLB record for most by a rookie. And only three players — Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran, and Nelson Cruz — have ever hit eight in a single post-season.

It also gave the Cuban outfielder 21 hits since the playoffs started, putting him just one back of Derek Jeter for the most by a rookie in a single post-season. At this rate, it’ll be shocking if that record doesn’t fall sometime early in the World Series. Just another October night for the ALCS MVP.

Big game Charlie

When the Astros won the 2017 World Series with a 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lance McCullers Jr. threw the first 2.1 innings of the game, while Charlie Morton threw the final four. Three years later, they were both back on the mound in the seventh game of a post-season series — except this time they were starting for opposite teams.

Morton departed the Astros as a free agent after the 2018 season, signing a two-year, $30-million contract with the Rays that looks like an absolute bargain in hindsight. Morton’s made 42 starts since, pitching to a 3.33 ERA and 2.92 FIP with sparkling 10.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9 peripherals.

And he’s been even better in the post-season, allowing only two earned runs over 20 innings spread between four playoff starts the last two seasons. So why would Saturday’s Game 7 be any different?

Morton was on an absolute mission, allowing only a Michael Brantley single over his first five innings, cruising into the sixth on just 49 pitches. He didn’t face a three-ball count until that inning, having retired 13 of the first 17 hitters he faced on three pitches or fewer.

He did it with a steady stream of curveballs, sinkers, cutters and four-seamers, constantly mixing and matching while living on the plate. Morton didn’t get much swing-and-miss, but he didn’t need it, as the Astros either stared flummoxed at perfectly located strikes on the black or put soft contact into play for Tampa’s elite defence to vacuum up.

But the Rays are still the Rays. So, with two runners on and two out in the sixth inning, and Morton not having allowed a ball out of the infield in the frame, manager Kevin Cash came to get him at only 66 pitches. Morton might have had the stuff to get through nine. But it was game 7. And the Rays had a plan.

A lot from Lance

Having stretched their bullpen thin just to reach this position, the Astros needed a lengthy outing from McCullers, who went seven innings during his Game 2 start earlier in the series.

But the Rays knew that, too. And their early-innings approach couldn’t have been better as they doggedly worked deep counts, refusing to chase curveballs off the plate while running up McCullers’ pitch count. The Rays forced him to throw 30 pitches in the first inning, and 20 more in the second. It’s tough to pitch deep into a ball game when your pitch count is surpassing 60 in the third.

McCullers nevertheless proved tricky to square up, locating curveballs, changeups and sinkers for called strikes, while getting swing-and-miss beneath the zone. But when he made mistakes, the Rays capitalized. There was Arozarena’s bomb in the first. And then there was this hanging curveball to Mike Zunino in the second:

You can see it all in McCullers’ body language as the ball comes off Zunino’s bat. It was an absolute bomb, hit 430-feet over the left field wall. That there was no one on base at the time is the only solace McCullers could take from it.

It had to be a frustrating outing through and through, as McCullers was featuring nasty stuff but paid the price for a couple missed locations and never settled into a groove. Ultimately, his inefficiency led to an early hook, as Dusty Baker came to get him with two out in the fourth inning, just as he was about to complete his second trip through the Rays lineup. McCullers gave his best argument for staying in, but the veteran Astros manager wasn’t hearing it.

A bullpen advantage

By the sixth inning, it was up to the bullpens. And that’s exactly what the Rays wanted. The Astros had to lean on leverage relief over the previous three games, as they fought tooth and nail to stay alive in the series. Ryan Pressly had pitched in three consecutive games; Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor had pitched in two straight; and Chris Javier had thrown long outings in two of the last three.

The Rays, meanwhile, had Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Ryan Thompson all rested and ready to go, not to mention Diego Castillo, who was available after throwing just 14 pitches in Game 6. As soon as the starters were done, it was advantage Rays.

And that bore fruit immediately, as the Rays tacked on a run in the sixth off Jose Urquidy to go up by four. Meanwhile, Anderson got four outs behind Morton to carry the Rays' shutout into the eighth. But then things got a little dicey.

Anderson put a couple runners on with two out, turning things over to Fairbanks, who couldn’t find the zone, walking Michael Brantley on four pitches to load the bases. The next pitch he threw — one of those 91-m.p.h. sliders that are somehow becoming normal in today’s game — ended up in right field off Carlos Correa’s bat, plating a couple.

But the nice thing about being Pete Fairbanks is you can throw a baseball 100-m.p.h., which he did on three of four pitches to Alex Bregman, striking out the Astros third baseman to end the inning.

Back out for the ninth, Fairbanks struck out a batter, gave up a single, struck out another, and finished it with a fly ball to right. Job done. Series done. The Rays had a plan and, as usual, it worked.

Odds and ends

• This was just a miserable post-season for Yuli Gurriel, who went 5-for-44, including 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position. In his second-last plate appearance of the ALCS, Gurriel hit into a double play on this absolute cookie:

• The Rays defended masterfully all series long, combining perfect positioning with instincts and athleticism to rob the Astros of hit after hit. This ridiculous play by Willy Adames will get lost in the shuffle but deserves to be appreciated:

• Jose Altuve’s 2020 was easily the worst offensive season of his career. But there’s no arguing with what he did in the playoffs, going 18-for-48 with five homers and hits in 10 of Houston’s 13 games. He’s now a .303/.376/.566 career hitter in 63 post-season games.

• Rays starter Tyler Glasnow was throwing off the bullpen mound throughout the eighth and ninth innings, staying ready to enter the game if things went sideways. They didn’t, which means he ought to be in line to start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday against either the Atlanta Braves or Los Angeles Dodgers.

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