Despite winning 40 games and entering the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the American League, the Rays flew under the radar during the regular season. Catcher Mike Zunino said he’s not sure if that’s because Tampa Bay is a small-market team or if it’s because of the perceived notion that there are no superstars on the roster.
With a 5-2 win over the Astros in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series on Tuesday night at Petco Park, the Rays are now one win away from going to the World Series, and the baseball world has officially been put on notice.
In postseason history, teams taking a 3-0 lead in any best-of-seven series have gone on to win 37 of 38 times (97 percent). The 2004 Red Sox, in the ALCS against the Yankees, are the only team to rally after losing the first three games. Of the 37 teams to win after going ahead 3-0, 30 have completed the sweep, five have finished it off in Game 5 and two have won in Game 6.
“We have guys that play the game the right way,” said Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. “We don’t have a whole lot of household names, but we have plenty of well-above-average Major League Baseball players in our clubhouse, and we know we can play, and here we are thriving on the big stage.”
This postseason, the Rays have proven that they’re not only a good team, but one that deserves to be in the conversation of the best team in the Majors. Tampa Bay has shown its reliable and talented depth, getting a heroic effort from a different player every night.
Manuel Margot was the hero on Monday, and on Tuesday it was Joey Wendle and Hunter Renfroe who took the lead, as Wendle gave the Rays a 2-1 advantage with a two-run single in the sixth, and Renfroe separated the game with a two-run double later in Tampa Bay’s five-run inning. The Rays got some help from a throwing error by Jose Altuve and a pair of hit-by-pitches by Enoli Paredes, and they never looked back.
“Classic Rays win,” Kiermaier said. “Dominant pitching, phenomenal defense and picking our spot to score runs, and tonight it was the sixth inning for us with the five-run outburst. It just takes one inning and that one momentum swing for us to do damage, and we did that tonight when our pitching and defense was absolutely incredible. That’s what we do.”
That is what the Rays have done over the last two seasons, and that’s exactly what the Rays Way is all about.
While much attention often falls on the team’s payroll, the talent on the roster often goes unnoticed. For starters, the Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in the Majors, and they’re continuing to display that in the postseason. The Yankees and Astros were first and second in OPS this season, respectively, but they have been held to a combined eight runs in the Rays’ past four games, all resulting in wins.
“I think people knew how good our pitching staff was, but I don’t know if they knew how good it was,” Renfroe said. “Some guys have really stepped up big for us, and they’ve just stepped in there and took on the role and dominated, and we haven’t looked back since.”
Rays relievers have stranded each of the first 20 runners they’ve inherited this postseason, the longest streak to start a postseason all-time, breaking the previous mark of 17 by the 2006 Cardinals.
Another advantage for the Rays is their stellar defense, particularly in the outfield. The Rays' outfield came into the postseason tied for fourth in the Majors in Outs Above Average, and that was on full display in Game 3 as Kiermaier and Renfroe both executed five-star catches, according to Statcast.
Wendle and Willy Adames continued to flash the leather on the left side of the infield. The overall defense was so solid that even pitcher John Curtiss showed off an athletic play, throwing out Yuli Gurriel on a comebacker in the seventh inning. In the series, the Astros have 27 hard-hit balls in play (95+ mph exit velocity) and have only eight hits to show for it. The stellar defense isn’t a coincidence, that’s the Rays Way.
“They play baseball the right way,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. “They play hard, run the bases hard, they play great defense and they pitch. That’s a recipe for winning championships, the recipe of winning teams. They’re winning games by the way they’re playing on the field. The defense is making great plays all around in key spots. They are making the plays that are making them win ballgames.”
As well as the Rays are playing, there’s an argument to be made that they have yet to play a complete game in the series. Though they got timely hits in Game 3, the Rays’ offense is still not clicking as well as they would like.
The Rays have been outhit by the Astros, 26-18, in the ALCS and came into Tuesday’s game hitting just .176 when you take Randy Arozarena and his historic postseason out of the equation. But every night, they seem to find a way.
“It’s just relentless,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “We use that word offensively a lot, but I think we show we can show it in all facets of the game.”
Now the Rays go into Wednesday’s game with a chance to sweep the ALCS and secure the first World Series appearance since 2008 and just the second in franchise history. They’ll send out starter Tyler Glasnow, who hasn’t been part of a Rays loss since Aug. 8 against the Yankees.
It’ll be another opportunity to prove how good the Rays are, if they haven’t already.
“This is what it’s all about,” Kiermaier said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this and have so much fun with these guys. It’s an amazing feeling [to be one game away from the World Series]. It really is.”