The best-of-seven American League Championship Series at Petco Park in San Diego has become a best-of-one, and it no longer matters how the Rays got to Game 7.
Tampa Bay arrives at Saturday's winner-take-all game in part because it left the door cracked open and in part because Houston kicked it down, but the Rays are no further from advancing to the World Series than they were three days ago. One win, they’re in.
“We’re going to show up tomorrow and do everything we can, like we always do, to find a way to win and pick each other up,” said manager Kevin Cash after Friday’s 7-4 Game 6 loss. “There’s no doubt the momentum has shifted, but I would bet on this team being very capable of bouncing back.”
It’s a scenario the Rays surely would have taken if you’d offered it to them on the first day of Spring Training, so Cash and his team aren’t focused on this string of three losses. Instead, Tampa Bay is focused on recapturing the energy from its early wins, and the club still likes how it’ll line up on Saturday’s big stage with a trip to the World Series on the line.
Tampa Bay will send Charlie Morton to the mound for Game 7, and the story is already starting to write itself.
Morton started Game 7 for the Astros in the 2017 ALCS. He pitched five scoreless innings before Lance McCullers Jr. -- Morton's opponent on Saturday, in a dramatic twist -- tossed four frames to complete the shutout and send Houston to the World Series. After another strong outing in Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers, Morton came back for Game 7 again, this time pitching the final four innings (after McCullers had started and gone 2 1/3 frames), retiring Corey Seager for the final out to clinch the title for the Astros.
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“I know I’ve done it before. That gives you the realization that you know you can do it, but it doesn’t change who those guys are over there, the momentum,” Morton said. “They just haven’t given up. Even their losses, they’ve just been swinging the bats and putting together really good at-bats. I’m going to have to have a sound game plan, and I’m going to have to execute. The situation doesn’t change that.”
Morton has felt the heat of this spotlight before, and the keys to Tampa Bay advancing begin with him.
It’s win or go home, and there may be no player in Game 7 taking that more literally than Morton.
Less than a month from his 37th birthday and in his 13th MLB season, Morton still has plenty left in the tank. He showed that in Game 2 of the ALCS on Monday, throwing five shutout innings with five strikeouts, opposing McCullers, who fanned 11 in seven frames. Morton is still undecided on his future beyond this postseason, though, as the Rays hold a club option at $15 million. He couldn’t have spoken more highly of the organization earlier in the series, when he reflected on the past two seasons and said he’d return if that option was picked up. If it isn’t, Morton has a decision to make with many factors involved, including his young family and the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, so it’s within the realm of possibility that Saturday could be his last time on a Major League mound.
“On a selfish level, I didn’t want this to be the last memory I had of the game,” Morton said earlier this week. “The way it’s had to go with testing and isolation, not being able to really enjoy special moments together in the clubhouse -- this is a very trying time for the game. I got to spend it with a tremendous group of people. It would be an honor, if it is my last year, to have done it with this group.”
Bring the bats back to life
The Rays need their offense to sustain some production and string hits together after a sporadic approach of late. They’ve been outhit by the Astros by 14 (52-38) and they have struck out 25 more times (70-45). That won’t work in Game 7.
If Game 6 was any indication, Manuel Margot could be the hot hand the Rays need. Margot launched a solo home run in the seventh and a two-run shot in the eighth, and while they weren’t enough, they represented a welcome sign of life for a lineup that’s leaned far too heavily on Randy Arozarena and a couple of big blows each game. This lineup is at its best when it’s stringing hits together, so Tampa Bay will need some Game 7 contributions from that bottom half of the order.
“When you look at this team, the fair share of guys in that locker room have had their backs against the wall at some point and would be fighting for this opportunity. We have it,” said catcher Mike Zunino. “It’s right there, ready to go.”
Turn Game 7 into 'Rays baseball'
Rays baseball is all about run prevention, and beyond Morton, that means Tampa Bay needs its defense to take the same form it did in Games 1-3. All signs point to Game 7 being tight, making the Rays’ ability to avoid mistakes one of their greatest strengths.
Part of Game 6’s loss was simply a shift in batted-ball luck, as the Astros finally found the holes in the Rays’ infield after much of their hard contact went directly at Tampa Bay defenders earlier in the series. The Rays always make the plays in front of them, but when they’ve been winning, they’ve had Kevin Kiermaier, Hunter Renfroe, Willy Adames, Joey Wendle and others making highlight-reel plays in the field. If Kiermaier returns to the starting lineup in Game 7 after missing the past two games with a left hand contusion, that would be a massive lift for the club all by itself.
This defensive play has done wonders for the Rays’ bullpen, which is the other half of this equation. Cash should have his top arms available, along with some potential creative options, including the hard-throwing Tyler Glasnow, who threw 96 pitches on Wednesday in Game 4.
“It’s Game 7. We’ll have all hands on deck,” Cash said, leaving no doubt.
The bullpen’s effort following Blake Snell on Friday was uncharacteristic, as Diego Castillo and Shane McClanahan combined to allow five runs (four earned) over 2 2/3 innings. Prior to that, the ‘pen had opened the postseason by stranding the first 20 runners it’d inherited, which was the most in Major League postseason history.
Game 7 is the perfect opportunity for Cash to unleash The Stable, led by Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Castillo, who could have a chance to close this out. If the Rays can do that, everyone will forget how this series got to 3-3.
Keegan Matheson is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.