Arozarena slugs way to ALCS MVP honors

October 18th, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- hadn’t even seen the trophy yet, but his teammates knew.

Moments after Manuel Margot caught the final out of the Rays’ American League Championship Series Game 7 victory over the Astros on Saturday night, a scrum broke out behind the Petco Park pitcher's mound. Arozarena found himself at the center of it, and his teammates, freshly crowned AL champions, broke into a chorus: “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”

As he’s done each time Tampa Bay has advanced this postseason, Arozarena danced.

Moments later, the worst-kept secret became official: Arozarena was the ALCS Most Valuable Player, the first rookie position player in MLB history to win an LCS or World Series MVP Award. The only previous three players to win one were all pitchers -- Mike Boddicker (1983 ALCS MVP), Livan Hernández ('97 NLCS and World Series MVP) and Michael Wacha (2013 NLCS MVP).

The postseason’s breakout star had the hardware to match.

“All the work we put in, and everything we’ve done in the offseason [is] for these moments,” Arozarena said through an interpreter after the Rays' 4-2 victory.

In seven games, Arozarena torched Houston pitching to the tune of four homers, a .321 average and an 1.152 OPS. He came up biggest when his team needed him most.

Having lost three straight games and on the verge of making some dubious history, Tampa Bay entered Saturday’s Game 7 in dire need of a spark. Then, Arozarena swaggered to the plate with one out and one runner on in the first inning. He unleashed his vicious-yet-controlled swing on a thigh-high fastball from Lance McCullers Jr., sending it booming over the right-center-field wall.

Statement made.

“I don't have any words that can describe what he's done, what he's meant to us this postseason,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “For him to have a bat in his hands with an opportunity for a big home run, I think it settled a lot of people in the dugout. It certainly did me.”

It will go down as one of the most memorable home runs in Rays history, and probably the most important of Arozarena's seven this postseason. That’s a playoff rookie record and one shy of tying the single-postseason mark currently held by Barry Bonds (2002), Carlos Beltrán ('04) and Nelson Cruz ('11).

Arozarena’s 21 hits this postseason are one shy of Derek Jeter’s 1996 playoff rookie record.

Anyone have Arozarena chasing Bonds and Jeter in the postseason record books last month?

A little-known piece in a four-player trade with St. Louis last winter, Arozarena’s ascension has been astounding. He credits the fit in Tampa Bay.

“Ever since I got traded over, it’s felt like a family,” Arozarena said. “They welcomed me with open arms. They let me be myself. They let me have the freedom to be out there and be the player I want to be.”

As such, Arozarena has blossomed into a sweet-swinging, hard-hitting, dance-battling, boot-wearing star. He is as captivating for the style as the substance -- and there’s plenty of both.

First, Arozarena hits the 416-foot homer to put his team ahead in Game 7. Then, he carries his bat to the first-base line, chucks it and thumps his chest.

First, Arozarena clinches a trip to the World Series with a smile and a throw of his glove. Then, he breaks out the lucky cowboy boots and the dance moves.

“I’m very happy with this team, this organization and the group of guys that we have,” Arozarena said from the on-field podium after the game. “Powerful boots!”

Arozarena’s journey is a remarkable one -- from Cuba to Mexico to the Cardinals’ farm system to winning ALCS MVP with the Rays.

Two months ago, Arozarena was quarantining after a positive COVID-19 test. He ate chicken and rice and did 300 push-ups every day. He didn’t debut for the Rays until Aug. 30.

Arozarena hasn’t stopped hitting since. He batted .281/.382/.641 in 23 games during the regular season, before taking his game to a new level in the playoffs.

“We’ve been facing some great pitchers and great teams,” Arozarena said. “But the ball is looking good.”

It must be. Arozarena is 21-for-63 (.333) this postseason, and he’s been the rock in the middle of a lineup that has slumped a bit. In no uncertain terms, the Rays have asked Arozarena to carry them offensively at times, and he’s done exactly that. Now, here they are, four wins from the first World Series championship in franchise history.

Powerful boots, indeed.