Pitching, defense, 3-run HR: Rays on a roll

October 13th, 2020

On Monday afternoon, the Rays delivered another clinic on winning a postseason baseball game. Let’s start there in the wake of a second straight victory over the Astros, a 4-2 decision in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park in San Diego.

Here goes:

The Rays have more of it than almost anyone, from classic hard-throwers to soft-tossers with funky deliveries.

Manager Kevin Cash had his closer, Nick Anderson, warming up in the fourth inning when starter Charlie Morton got into trouble. Cash had used Anderson in the third inning of the winner-take-all AL Division Series Game 5 against the Yankees on Friday.

When Morton worked out of trouble, Anderson sat down. Five innings later, Anderson trotted in from the bullpen to get the final three outs. That’s the definition of what Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver once referred to as “deep depth.”

Cash fretted about needing to get a couple of his hitters going after scoring only six runs while taking a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series. The Rays had only four hits in Game 2, but one of them was a three-run home run by Manuel Margot in the first that set the tone for everything that followed.

Sloppy defense by the Astros had given Margot a chance to hit with two runners on, and he made them pay by hitting the second pitch he saw from Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. over the center-field wall. Catcher Mike Zunino’s towering homer in the seventh gave the Rays a bit of breathing room.

Yes, about that. This is what fans are likely to remember from Game 2. Highlight reel? How about highlight reels?

Margot’s terrifying leap and flip over a fence in foul territory down the first-base line in the second may end up being Tampa Bay’s signature moment of the postseason. It came with runners on second and third and two outs in a 3-0 game.

The Astros had runners on base in seven of the nine innings and stranded at least one in scoring position in five of them. That included the ninth, when Anderson got Alex Bregman to fly out to center with the bases loaded.

Rays shortstop Willy Adames made a nice play on a Bregman grounder in the third. Third baseman Joey Wendle robbed Jose Altuve in the fifth. Kevin Kiermaier ran down everything in center field.

If there was a touch of frustration in the Astros' voices on Monday, who could blame them? They’ve had 21 hits in two losses and scored three runs. They hit 10 balls 100 mph or harder in Game 2 (per Statcast) and have only an 0-2 deficit to show for it.

The Rays are hitting .207 in nine postseason games and averaging 4.2 runs per contest. But they’ve also hit 17 homers, tied with the Yankees for the most this postseason. This is how they go about it.

“We’re having fun and enjoying this time,” Adames said. “You've got to play your best right now. If you don’t, you go home, and we don’t want to go home.”

They’re doing what championship teams almost always do in that their strengths overshadow any offensive issues they have. And that pitching staff -- very deep and very good -- has gotten them this far.

“How do you win close ballgames?” Cash asked. “You've got to be good at it. Over time, you've got to make plays. And what Joey Wendle did and what Willy did today was remarkable. And then we capitalized on a miscue. Good teams have the ability to do that.”

And the Rays hit during the regular season. They led the AL in runs as late as Sept. 12, as Cash mixed and matched 59 lineups in 60 games. They were third in the AL in homers after Aug. 12, but they also won more games than any other AL team when they didn’t homer (14 of 19).

That 18 players hit at least one homer -- the most in MLB -- speaks volumes about how Tampa Bay was constructed around depth and flexibility. Now, it has won seven of nine games at the most important time of the year and is two victories from playing in the World Series for the first time since 2008.

“I mean, we've got a talented group of players,” Cash said. “And sometimes, that talent doesn't always show up at the same time. But right now, you know, certainly on the pitching and the defense, it's there. They’re playing with very minimal margin of error, and they're getting it done.”