TB's happy place, Astros' G1 missed chance

October 12th, 2020

This was postseason baseball at its floor-pacing, heartburn-inducing best. The thing about a game like this one -- actually, the thing about a lot of postseason baseball -- is that things become magnified in a way they just aren’t during the regular season.

Thrown out stealing a base? No big deal. Liner smoked at 95 mph turns into a rally-kneecapping double play? Stuff happens. Stranding seven runners in scoring position? See you tomorrow, guys.

That’s your 2020 Tampa Bay Rays in a nutshell. They beat the Astros, 2-1, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday at Petco Park and used their own particular blueprint, which is keeping it close, then throwing waves of quality relievers at an opponent.

The Rays were an MLB-best 14-5 in one-run games and 23-10 in games decided by two runs or less. So when the Astros got a Jose Altuve home run off in the top of the first inning, Tampa Bay was in its happy place.

The Rays trailed in 40 of 60 regular-season games and managed 20 come-from-behind wins, most in the AL. When a team has won this way for an entire season -- even a shortened one -- it builds a thick layer of resilience and a confidence that’s difficult to measure.

“It all helps when you’re playing a tight game,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Every pitch mattered.”

Here’s the challenge for the Astros: to flush the whole thing from their system. That probably won’t be a problem for a team that is playing in its fourth straight ALCS and is built around a core of players who couldn’t be more comfortable on the big stage.

On the other hand, this one is going to sting a bit. The Astros stranded six runners in scoring position, including the potential tying run in three of the final four innings.

“I just knew that we're going to pull it out,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We hit some balls good. Opportunity's the name of the game. If you keep getting opportunities, sooner or later you're going to come through.”

Here are the moments that mattered:

1. was thrown out attempting to steal second base with one out in the top of the third inning, when Houston led 1-0. Altuve followed with a single, which would have given the Astros men on first and second with Nos. 3-5 hitters Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa lined up.

2. ’s 95-mph liner with runners on first and second and no outs was grabbed by Rays shortstop , who stepped on second base to double off Bregman. The Astros still loaded the bases, but Snell got Martín Maldonado to fly out to right to keep it a one-run game. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Randy Arozarena’s homer tied it, and Houston never led again. “Willy was positioned perfectly,” Cash said.

3. The Rays took the lead for good in the bottom of the fifth inning when singled in Adames, who had drawn a leadoff walk from Astros starter Framber Valdez.

4. Houston’s best chance to tie it came in the eighth inning, when Tucker smoked a ground ball 108 mph to left with runners on first and second. It was hit so hard that Brantley, who had been at second, had to stop at third.

5. Cash then summoned reliever to face with the bases loaded. Gurriel got jammed with a first-pitch sinker and grounded into an inning-ending double play.

After the game, both teams said all the right things about this being a matchup of two very good, very closely matched teams.

That’s true in one sense. It’s also true that a game like this will feel like a blown opportunity to the Astros. The Rays were playing 48 hours after a huge, emotional victory over the Yankees on Friday, and Cash contained a team that hit .322 in the AL Division Series without using two of his three best late-inning relievers -- Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks.