The Rays have been a resilient group all season. They were able to overcome losing five key pitchers to season-ending injuries. They didn't panic after starting the regular season 5-7. And they were able to beat the Yankees despite being pushed to the brink in the American League Division Series.
But the Rays' best act of resiliency will have to come on Saturday, or else they'll be on the wrong end of baseball history.
For the third consecutive night, the Rays were unable to eliminate the Astros as Houston used a four-run fifth inning to beat Tampa Bay, 7-4, on Friday at Petco Park, forcing a Game 7 in the AL Championship Series. It's the first time since 2011 that the Rays have lost three consecutive postseason games.
"I think we take it as a one-game series now," said Rays catcher Mike Zunino. "We're 3-3 right now and someone's got to win tomorrow. We can say momentum or we can use anything we want, but at the end of the day, if the roles were switched, it would be a different narrative. We have to keep that in mind. We're still right in this thing."
Zunino is right. The Rays are right in it, but the series feels completely different than it did after Tuesday's Game 3. The 3-0 series lead Tampa Bay had then has quickly vanished, and the frustration is mounting for a team that has done a good job of keeping its emotions under control over the course of the season.
Zunino shattered a bat over his thigh after a strikeout and Yandy Díaz lost his cool with Astros starter Framber Valdez after a walk. Those could be signs of a team that's starting to feel some added pressure. After all, the Astros are now just the second team in Major League history to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0. The other team? The 2004 Red Sox, who went on to win Game 7 of the ALCS against the Yankees to complete the comeback.
"They're frustrated. We're all frustrated," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "But I don't think they're tensing up. I think they recognize that we've got an opportunity for the fourth time to do something special, and have confidence that we can find ways to just really compete and get the bats going, score some runs for Charlie [Morton] and find a way to win."
The Rays scored first in Game 6, as Willy Adames delivered a two-out RBI double in the second inning. That felt big for an offense that has been starving for any production, especially in the early innings.
Unfortunately for the Rays, Blake Snell and the bullpen weren't able to keep the Astros off the board in the fifth. Snell was pulled after Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Díaz reached base to start the frame. In an interesting -- and aggressive -- move, Cash went to Diego Castillo to try and limit the damage.
But for the first time in this postseason, Castillo was not able to deliver. Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve all delivered run-scoring hits against Castillo, who was one of eight pitchers to begin his postseason career with at least 10 scoreless appearances before this outing. The Rays are now 5-1 when scoring first in the postseason.
"I don't know if it was four or five walks, but ideally in that tight of a ballgame, we avoid that," Cash said. "Blake has a pretty uncanny knack of limiting damage, but [I] just felt at the time, I wanted to take the opportunity to get Diego in the game."
The fact that the move to bring in Castillo didn't work sums up the past few days for Tampa Bay. In the first three games of the series, every move Cash made seemed to work to perfection. Every ball put in play by the Astros found a Rays defender, and Tampa Bay was able to find a way to capitalize on every mistake.
In the last three games, however, the script has flipped. The Astros are starting to find holes in the Rays' defense, while Tampa Bay just continues to struggle offensively. The Rays went 6-for-31 in Game 6, a .194 batting average. Though single-game batting average isn't a perfect science, the fact is that the Rays have now hit under .230 in each of the past eight games, the longest such streak in Major League postseason history. That's going to have to change.
"I feel like we're going to swing it tomorrow," Snell said. "I think these guys are starting to get it going, they're talking a little bit more, a little bit more confidence, so I'm excited to see what tomorrow's game will bring. I like our chances."
The Rays came into the 2020 season hoping to enter the record books as the team that won the World Series in one of the most difficult seasons ever. That's still attainable with Morton and his perfect 3-0 record in winner-take-all games on the mound in Game 7. But with one more loss Saturday, the Rays would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
"This is a resilient group," Cash said. "There's no doubt the momentum has shifted, but I would bet on this team being very capable of bouncing back."