It was Game 3 the other day at Tropicana Field, and I was sitting behind the Astros' dugout on the third-base side surrounded mostly by Rays fans, in their blue jerseys and old Evan Longoria No. 3 T-shirts, and even one that I saw with Alex Cobb’s name on the back. All they were doing at the time was rooting hard for one more game, even against the Astros, the heavyweight champs of the regular season, one of the best regular-season teams of all time.
And there was a guy named Pete, originally out of New Jersey, a couple of rows behind me. We were talking about how good the Rays are and how tough an out they are. Not about what the attendance is or their payroll. Just the way they play the game.
“I can’t speak to people who aren’t here,” Pete said. “I just know that I’m here.”
The Rays beat the Astros, 10-3 on Monday afternoon. So they got to play Game 4 the next night at The Trop. Then they went out and beat up Justin Verlander, the most imposing starting pitcher in the world. Now they go to Houston and play their third deciding game of this October in Game 5. They will try to beat 107 regular-season victories. And they will play what I believe is the biggest game in franchise history since they beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2008 when the Sox were defending champs.
Dustin Pedroia hit a home run in the first inning of that game and then Matt Garza, pitching the game of his life, just dominated Boston after that. Garza reminded you that night that in a win-or-go-home game, you are pretty much defenseless when somebody pitches the way Garza did. It is like running into a hot goalie in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Dodgers are always around at this time of year, and the Yankees have always believed that October baseball is as much a part of their brand as pinstripes on their uniforms. The Astros won a World Series two years ago and were in the ALCS last year, and came into this postseason as the favorite to win it all again. The Nationals, even with all the heartbreak they’ve had at this time of year, they’ve been around a lot.
It is different with the Rays. Oh man, is it ever. They absolutely did go to the World Series in 2008. And they lost the first two games of the ALDS against the Rangers nine years ago, came back to force a Game 5 that time, and lost to Cliff Lee, 5-1. But that game never felt like this game does to Rays fans. That chance to knock off the Rangers wasn’t close to this kind of chance, against an Astros team this young and deep and talented and formidable.
Nine years ago it was Lee, when Lee was one of the true aces of baseball. Now the Rays go up against Gerrit Cole, who may only miss out on a Cy Young this season, even after the spectacular season he’s had, because Verlander pitched another no-hitter (third of his career) and Cole did not.
But whatever happens at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night, this is still one of the great, shining moments in the 22-year history of the Rays. They finished strong in 2018, after a terrible start, and everybody was saying that if the regular season had lasted a couple of weeks longer they would have kept coming and made it back to the playoffs. Now they come back and win 96 games. The Yankees were better in the American League East. They were 12-7 against the Rays this season. So the Yankees got them pretty good. Hardly anybody else did.
They have a brilliant front office. They have a brilliant young manager in Kevin Cash. When they went out and got themselves a free-agent pitcher during the last offseason, they picked the right one in Charlie Morton, who has established himself now as one of the spectacular big-game pitchers in the sport: Four deciding games in the last three Octobers.
Morton pitched five innings to start Game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees in 2017, and he tossed four innings in relief to close out Game 7 of the World Series that year. He allowed one unearned run over five innings in the AL Wild Card Game against the A’s last week before pitching five innings of one-run ball against the Astros on Monday afternoon at The Trop. That is an ERA of 0.95 in the four biggest games of his life.
Morton doesn’t start Thursday night (though don’t be surprised if he makes an appearance). The Astros send a talented kid named Tyler Glasnow against Cole. It will surely be all hands on deck after that. There have been a handful of nights like this in the history of the Rays. Now comes another one, against the great Houston Astros. Other teams still playing have had more nights and more games like this one. Maybe that’s why it couldn’t mean more than it does to the Rays and their fans.
They’re a little like my Jersey friend Pete, the Rays. Still here.