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Anatomy of Astros' (near) miracle comeback

@AJCassavell
October 18, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- The Astros nearly did the unthinkable. Trailing Tampa Bay three games to none in the American League Championship Series, Houston rallied to become the second team in baseball history to overcome such a deficit and force a decisive Game 7. Only the 2004 Red Sox had accomplished

SAN DIEGO -- The Astros nearly did the unthinkable.

Trailing Tampa Bay three games to none in the American League Championship Series, Houston rallied to become the second team in baseball history to overcome such a deficit and force a decisive Game 7. Only the 2004 Red Sox had accomplished such a feat before them.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 TB 2, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 12 TB 4, HOU 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 13 TB 5, HOU 2 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 14 HOU 4, TB 3 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 15 HOU 4, TB 3 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 16 HOU 7, TB 4 Watch
Gm 7 Oct. 17 TB 4, HOU 2 Watch

Unlike that Red Sox team, the 2020 Astros saw their luck run out in a 4-2 loss in the finale on Saturday night at Petco Park. But they made a series that had no business being close exciting -- long after most counted them as goners.

Here’s how the Astros nearly came back -- and how the Rays made sure it didn’t happen:

Game 4: Dusty’s faith in Greinke
When Astros manager Dusty Baker ambled to the Petco Park mound with two men aboard in the sixth inning of Game 4, he planned to remove Zack Greinke. But those plans were tenuous.

The Astros led, 4-2, but Greinke had allowed two singles, and was entering his third trip through the Tampa Bay lineup. By the numbers, the situation probably called for Greinke's removal -- even Baker acknowledged that afterward.

"I usually don't change my mind," Baker would say. "But I hadn't had my mind really made up 'til I got out there and I saw the look in Zack's eyes."

Greinke didn't say anything. But his look -- plus some convincing from catcher Martín Maldonado -- was enough for Baker to stick with the veteran right-hander with the Astros' season on the line.

"Maldy said that I was looking good and that I could get out of it," Greinke said. "It was nice having some guys have confidence in you."

It was an "old-school" move, Greinke would later say, and it worked just fine. Had the Astros won the series, it’s easy to envision the decision as the equivalent to Dave Roberts’ stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

Then, after an infield hit by Ji-Man Choi, Greinke worked the count full against AL Division Series hero Mike Brosseau. Maldonado came to the mound for a discussion. They settled on a changeup.

It was Greinke at his finest, maximizing deception with a pitch that started at the knees and dropped to the dirt. Brosseau swung over it, ending the inning, and the Astros would hold on for a one-run victory.

Game 5: From leadoff to walk-off
"When you go, we go," Carlos Correa told George Springer with the Astros facing elimination. “We don't win this series without you."

Springer wasted no time in Game 5. The Astros’ leadoff man sent a booming home run into the Western Metal Building on the first pitch, putting Houston on top, 1-0.

"You know Springer's the king of that," Baker said.

A nervy, back-and-forth battle ensued. The Rays tied it. The Astros took another lead. The Rays tied it again on Choi's eighth-inning home run.

The Astros headed to the bottom of the ninth inning in dire straits. Having used seven pitchers, their bullpen was virtually empty. Framber Valdez, slated to start the following night, began to get loose. Baker said a prayer.

"I said, 'Lord, please let us walk off,'" Baker said. "Because if not, then we've got to use Framber."

A few moments later, Correa had a message for Baker.

"Before he went up there, he goes: 'Walk-off,'" Baker said. "I said, 'Go ahead on, man.'"

"I knew I was going to end it,” said Correa. "I could feel my swing was in sync. I could feel my rhythm was good, and I felt like I was going to drive the ball. I believed I could do it."

He did it -- against one of the best relievers in the sport, no less. Correa launched an opposite-field blast off Rays right-hander Nick Anderson to the beach area at Petco Park, sending the series to a Game 6.

Game 6: A workingman's rally
This time, it was Rays manager Kevin Cash's turn to make a crucial pitching decision. The Rays led by one in the fifth inning in Game 6. Blake Snell hadn't allowed a run, but he'd put two men aboard, much like Greinke in Game 4.

But Cash had a mostly fresh bullpen, and he called for Diego Castillo, who had never allowed a postseason run to score -- whether his own or inherited.

"I trusted that Diego could come in there and basically do what he’s done all season long," Cash said.

The Astros wouldn't make things easy. They never make things easy. One of the best contact teams in baseball lived up to the billing.

First, Baker -- true to his old-school rep -- called for a bunt from Maldonado. The veteran catcher laid down a perfect one, advancing the two runners into scoring position.

Cash had already gambled in calling for Castillo. He pushed more chips into the pot with his next decision.

The Rays brought their infield in and shifted three of those infielders to the left side. Cash was risking the possibility of a big inning for a chance to hold on to a one-run lead.

The move backfired. Springer capitalized by shooting a slow chopper through the vacated left side, and the flood gates opened. On the next pitch, Jose Altuve doubled, plating a run. Correa singled him in.

“We’re relentless,” Correa said. “We keep coming, you know? We said we didn’t wanna go home, and we meant it.”

The Astros had a three-run lead, and the Rays were left wondering what hit them. Against all odds, this series was headed for a Game 7.

Game 7: Randy sets the tone
If the Rays were on edge entering Game 7, Randy Arozarena calmed the nerves awfully quickly.

With one on and one out in the bottom of the first inning, Arozarena -- the eventual ALCS MVP -- launched an opposite-field home run, putting Tampa Bay on top, 2-0.

“I don't have any words that can describe what he's done, what he's meant to us this postseason,” Cash said. “For him to have a bat in his hands with an opportunity for a big home run, I think it settled a lot of people in the dugout. It certainly did me.”

The Rays extended that lead to 4-0, but it was still nervy for most of the night -- particularly when Cash again emerged earlier than anticipated to remove a starter who was working on a shutout.

Charlie Morton had worked 5 2/3 scoreless frames, but Cash called for Nick Anderson, who promptly escaped the jam with a bouncer to second. The Astros would score two runs in the eighth and brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth. But Pete Fairbanks got Aledmys Díaz to pop to right, securing the pennant for Tampa Bay.

There would be no miracle comeback for the Astros -- but they made a better run at it than all but one team in baseball history.

“These guys fought,” Baker said. “I mean, they fought until the very end.”

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.