Kevin Kiermaier set the tone for the Rays with two brilliant catches in the early innings in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night, and his teammates picked up right where he left off with a long string of highlight-reel plays to put them within one win of the World Series.
The Rays’ 5-2 win over the Astros at Petco Park in San Diego was another classic example of their style of play, doing all of the small things right and stealing some runs defensively while they waited for their bats to wake up. No matter how hard the ball left the Astros’ bats or where it was headed, as long as it stayed in the park, the Rays found a way to make the play.
Kiermaier twice thwarted Astros batters despite playing only five innings on defense. The center fielder was removed from the game in the middle of the sixth after his left hand was hit by a pitch. X-rays were negative, and he was diagnosed with a contusion.
Kiermaier’s diving grab to end the third inning was his finest, and it might have saved two runs from scoring. He sold out to make the play on a line drive off the bat of the Astros’ Carlos Correa.
With runners on first and second, Correa drove a liner back up the middle that was fading and dropping to Kiermaier’s glove side as he raced in, covering 64 feet in 3.8 seconds. With a catch probability of 20%, as calculated by Statcast, it qualifies as a five-star catch for Kiermaier, which has come to be something we expect from the three-time Gold Glove Award winner in center field.
“Taking a run away is just as valuable as driving one in. I guess I’m biased towards that,” said Kiermaier, grinning as he raised his hand, “because defense is my bread and butter, but it really is.”
The fact Kiermaier has a contusion and not a broken bone is great news for the Rays as they go for the sweep on Wednesday. To do that, they’ll need to carry on this elite level of defense that reaches to every corner of their roster, but starts with the veteran Kiermaier.
In the regular season, Kiermaier made a five-star catch on three occasions, the most in Major League Baseball. It’s catches like these that make his catch at the wall in the first inning look so effortless despite being impressive in its own right. On that play, Kiermaier ranged back to the wall to make a leaping catch on a 394-foot shot off the bat of Alex Bregman that was headed for the top of the wall. Kiermaier made the catch at the peak of his jump before crashing back down to the ground, feet in the air and ball in his glove, as we’ve seen so many times before.
After Kiermaier was removed following the Rays’ five-run rally in the sixth inning, Manuel Margot moved to center field while Hunter Renfroe took over in right, where he did his best Kiermaier impression.
George Springer stepped in with two outs in the seventh and lined a ball to right field that looked like a single, at the very least, but the Astros are learning the hard way that this Rays team finds a way to make virtually every single play. Renfroe raced in and toward the foul line before fully extending himself to make the catch. Just like Kiermaier’s, it ended the inning with style. Renfroe’s, like Kiermaier’s, was also a five-star catch with a catch probability of just 20%.
How did Renfroe look so comfortable in right field at Petco Park? Well, the 1,972 1/3 innings he has played there might have helped. Renfroe, acquired by the Rays after four seasons with the Padres, was able to make plays because he felt right at home and in full control.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve had a lot of time in right field here, practicing, games, BP, the whole nine yards,” Renfroe said. “I feel really comfortable here, as far as playing the outfield. I know the turf. I know the grass. I know the ball flies. … I knew, right away, what these balls were going to do.”
Manager Kevin Cash has to be running out of ways to describe these plays, with different Rays making headlines each game in the field. Cash is already keeping his focus solely on Game 4, but he called the catches by Kiermaier and Renfroe in the outfield “game-saving, game-changing plays.”
“I think our defense is just good,” Cash said, stating the obvious. “We played just tremendous defense all season long. It’s a credit to the guys and how hard they work at it, whether it’s the outfield, the infield or the catchers.”
The Astros threatened again in the eighth, loading the bases with one out, but it was Renfroe again who made the best play of the inning with a running, sliding catch on a falling liner from Kyle Tucker. Three pitches later, Aaron Loup got Yuli Gurriel to ground out to end the inning, allowing the Rays to exhale for what felt like the hundredth time in the game.
The Rays’ left side of their infield, shortstop Willy Adames and third baseman Joey Wendle, poured salt on the wound with a pair of great plays.
Adames was first, robbing Jose Altuve of a hit in the fifth inning by ranging deep to his right. The grounder had a chance to sneak through. It looked like Adames, at best, might just get a glove on the ball to keep it to an infield single, but he fired back across his body to Yandy Díaz, who made a great scoop at first to get Altuve just in time. It ended the inning, too, following the theme of the night.
“It’s awesome. I have the best view in the house all night,” said Kiermaier, raving about the defensive plays from his teammates. “I get to watch our pitchers dominate as always. Then I get to watch our infielders put on a show on any given night.”
Wendle’s play came in the very next inning, Bregman lined a one-hopper to third base. It wasn’t hit particularly hard, but Wendle’s ability to play the short hop is what made this one impressive. That play helped to halt any immediate rally following Tampa Bay’s big inning.
With the outfielders and infielders doing their thing, reliever John Curtiss made sure the pitchers got involved, too.
Facing Gurriel in the seventh inning, Curtiss forced him to beat a chopper into the ground, but it looked like the ball would go over Curtiss’ head and create a difficult play behind him. Instead, Curtiss used every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to reach up and snag it as he fell off the mound towards third base. The right-hander then threw hard to first, where Díaz, like Ji-Man Choi in Games 1 and 2, was a vacuum all night long.
Through the first three games of the series, the Rays have recorded 13 outs on batted balls from the Astros with an expected batting average of .500 or better. Expected batting average is calculated based on the exit velocity and launch angle of the ball, not the fielder’s chances of making the play, but it shows just how often balls have left Houston’s bats looking like sure hits, only to find a glove. Only three balls put in play by the Rays with an xBA over .500 have gone for outs.
Keegan Matheson covers the Blue Jays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.