Rays turning Astros' loud contact into outs

Houston's hard-hit balls not translating to runs through first two games

October 13th, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- George Springer could only lift both arms in disgust, his exasperation speaking for his entire team.

Trailing by three runs in the ninth inning of Monday's Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park, the Astros had loaded the bases with nobody out. In the game's decisive moment, Springer ripped a sharp one-hopper up the middle, which had an expected batting average of .540, according to Statcast.

Second baseman Brandon Lowe was there. The Rays, it seems, always have someone there.

“How do you win close ballgames and be good at it, over time?” Rays manager Kevin Cash mused afterward. “You’ve got to make plays.”

Lowe coolly stepped on the second-base bag and fired a strike to first, completing the double play. Three batters later, Tampa Bay wrapped up a tense 4-2 victory to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Offensively, the Astros seem to be doing all the things they should be doing. They’re limiting strikeouts against Tampa Bay’s stable of strikeout artists. They're hitting the ball hard. They're working deep counts.

“We played an outstanding game,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “We had opportunities, just like last night, had bases loaded, and George hits a bullet up the middle. They're playing accordingly, and it turned into a double play. We just got beat by misfortune today.”

At some point, that’s no longer a consolation. Despite the best efforts of those Astros hitters, it’s the Rays who hold a two-game lead. Houston’s season is on the brink -- whether due to bad luck or otherwise.

Among the Astros’ 25 hard-hit balls this series, only nine have gone for hits. Alex Bregman was bitten particularly hard by that batted-ball luck on Monday. He recorded five of those hard hits (defined by Statcast as any ball with an exit velocity greater than 95 mph), but he went 0-for-5 -- including a game-ending drive to the right-center-field gap, tracked down by center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

“It was very frustrating, because all you hear is exit speed,” Baker said. “We had a ton of exit speed today. … We had some line drives all over the field. We ended with Breggy hitting the bullet to right-center. I thought that ball had a chance to get in the gap.”

Of course, to say the Rays got lucky would be oversimplifying things. Manuel Margot made the game’s signature defensive play, spilling over the wall in foul territory down the right-field line to track down a Springer fly ball in the second inning. But he wasn’t the only Tampa Bay defender who flashed serious leather.

Shortstop Willy Adames was excellent, ranging to his right to make two outstanding plays early. Third baseman Joey Wendle added a diving stop in the fifth to rob Jose Altuve. The Astros continually scorched baseballs. The Rays continually gobbled them up.

It was a testament to an organization that has blended elite defense with elite defensive positioning. Cash called it “a clinic.” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa wouldn’t disagree.

“You can say you're unlucky,” Correa said. “But at the same time, you've got to give credit to their defense. I thought their shortstop was nasty, made some really good plays today. Wendle made some really good plays today. Their defense is winning ballgames for them right now.”

In Game 1 on Sunday, the Astros outhit the Rays, 9-6. Houston's expected batting average was .319 to Tampa Bay's .189 mark. But the Astros lost, 2-1.

In Game 2, the Astros again outhit the Rays, this time 10-4. They again posted a significantly better expected batting average, .357 to .167. Same result.

Even Rays right-hander Charlie Morton had to concede that his five shutout innings probably weren’t exactly his five shutout innings.

“[Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.] outpitches me by a mile,” Morton said. “He threw one of the better games you could expect anyone to throw. And here I am sitting here with a win, because my team picked me up. My team did a heck of a job today. I just don’t think it’s really about me.”

Through two games, the Astros have managed only three runs, after scoring 33 in their four-game AL Division Series against Oakland. The only two differences: fewer homers and worse batted-ball luck.

Correa went deep on Monday, after Altuve did on Sunday. Both were solo shots. The game’s decisive blow, as it turns out, was Margot’s three-run blast following Altuve’s error.

No question, the Astros need a cleaner defensive showing in Game 3. But offensively, what, exactly, do they change? Is there anything they can change?

“No, not really,” Baker said. “I learned a long time ago that all you need to do is get a good pitch to hit, and then hit it hard. And after that, it's really out of your control. You can change your approach all you want to, but still it boils down to trying to hit the ball, get a good pitch to hit, hit the ball hard.

“You've got to simplify it. They got away. There's nothing that we did wrong, we just didn't find a hole.”

Except, of course, the 0-2 hole the Astros find themselves in, loud contact and all.