And why not? They’re all going to the World Series.
“We are having the time of our lives right now,” said Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier after a series-stretching win, after his team hugged its way across the field to leave a mosaic of celebrating footsteps. “We just want to finish this the right way.”
To have a chance to, to get within four wins of their first title, the Rays beat the Houston Astros, 4-2, in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. They paired two early homers with 5 ⅔ scoreless innings from Charlie Morton. Their bullpen held on. They used one night, just a sliver of this month-long run, to step out of their own way and dodge the grip of history.
By outlasting the Astros — by not collapsing beneath the weight of self-inflicted pressure — the Rays will not be the answer to a trivia question. A loss would have made them the second team in MLB history to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series. That was possible because, after zooming ahead, the Rays’ bats shut off and their pitching wilted. The New York Yankees of 2004 would have been their company. It took three days to go from destined for the World Series to stumbling toward a matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves.
But it never matters how you get there. It only matters that you do. And these Rays, built on arms and defense, managed just enough hits to edge an Astros team still trailed by a sport-shaking scandal. Tampa Bay’s manager, Kevin Cash, needled his offense as this week wore on. It needed someone aside from Randy Arozarena or Manuel Margot to step up. Yet in the end, as the stakes kept climbing, as baseball grappled with the Astros coming back, a mix of Arozarena and catcher Mike Zunino was the fix.
They couldn’t act alone. Morton, for one, was used to having a season on his shoulders. He threw five scoreless to win Game 7 of the ALCS for the Astros in 2017. He notched the last 12 outs of their title-clinching win that fall. He then switched sides, signing with the Rays and, last year, led them past the Oakland Athletics in a do-or-die wild-card game. Cash called him Tampa Bay’s “been there, done that” guy. And so Morton went out and did that again.
“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable,” Morton said of why or how he thrives in elimination games. “I guess after the first couple, when I actually realized that I could do it, it became something that I actually kind of look forward to.”
He has still never trailed in an elimination game. Arozarena was just the latest to give him a critical lead. In the bottom of the first, two batters after Lance McCullers Jr. plunked Margot, Arozarena cracked a low sinker over the right-center fence. The homer was his eighth of the playoffs, breaking the rookie record set by Evan Longoria in 2008, the last time Tampa Bay won the pennant. Arozarena responded by watching the ball, yelling at his bench, tossing his bat so quickly — as if it were stinging his hands — that his helmet tipped off and crashed into the dirt. Then he rounded the bases without it. Then, an inning later, Zunino widened the gap with a solo shot to left.
“I don’t have any words to describe what he’s done, what he’s meant to us this postseason,” Cash said of Arozarena, who was named ALCS MVP for crushing the Astros with nine hits and four blasts in the series. “For him to have a bat in his hand, with an opportunity for a big home run, really settled a lot of people in the dugout.”
“The ball is looking good,” Arozarena added with a laugh after the victory. “The ball is looking real nice to me.”
Once there was separation, the Rays could start counting outs. Arozarena’s homer left 24 to record. Zunino’s left 21. Morton, a 36-year-old righty, completed three dominant innings on 30 pitches. McCullers, by contrast, needed the same number to get through the first. At the end of the fifth, Morton had retired 13 straight batters and 15 of the 16 he had faced. His fastball velocity was a tick up. His curve looked like a physics project.
But the sixth brought trouble and a choice. Morton retired 14 in a row before walking Martín Maldonado with one out. He had men on the corners once José Altuve tapped a two-out infield single. Michael Brantley dug in as the tying run. In the fifth inning of Game 6, in a similar jam, Cash hooked starter Blake Snell for Diego Castillo. Snell, a former Cy Young Award winner, was at 82 pitches. Castillo let two inherited runners score, then two more to bury the Rays and extend the series. The move blew up in Cash’s face.
Now, in the heat of an even bigger contest, Morton was much sharper than Snell. He was at just 66 pitches. But Cash stuck with the logic that led the Rays to this point: Use fresh, high-leverage relievers in the pivotal spots. Forget about pitch counts and convention. Let Nick Anderson, one of the team’s most reliable relievers, handle Brantley with their fate on the line.
“It’s no disrespect to anybody,” Cash said of the decision, explaining that he didn’t want Morton facing Brantley a third time in such a high-leverage situation. “That’s just what we do. We believe in our process and we’re going to continue to.”
And, this time, it worked. Anderson induced a soft grounder to second. Zunino plated Ji-Man Choi with a sacrifice fly in the bottom half, bumping the lead to 4-0. Nine outs remained — the Rays could then count with their fingers — and soon Anderson escaped the seventh with a routine double play. He was relieved by Peter Fairbanks, who yielded a two-run single to Carlos Correa with two outs in the eighth. Then Fairbanks struck out Alex Bregman, ending the threat, and wound the outs to zero.
The win didn’t erase issues raised by three consecutive losses here. The Rays could use a lot more from batters not named Randy Arozarena. Starter Tyler Glasnow has another level in him. The World Series, the next and final test of their season, will be hard to win if offense is only an occasional complement to what they do best.
But they earned the right to sort through this in Texas, at the finish line of what’s been a most wacky four months. Cash lifted the AL championship trophy while his team and a small group of family members cheered into the empty stadium. Players later emerged with a boombox and danced a bit in the dugout. That the AL will be repped by its best team, by a small-market club led by emerging household names, is order fit for 2020. The Rays are moving on.