Arozarena steals home, show as Rays roll

October 8th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- is back in postseason mode, power boots and all.

The breakout star of last October, Arozarena immediately delivered in his return to the game’s biggest stage on Thursday night at Tropicana Field. The 26-year-old outfielder flew around the bases to score a first-inning run, launched a moonshot home run to left field in the fifth and, in his most daring playoff act yet, pulled off a straight steal of home in the seventh inning of the Rays’ 5-0 win over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

“He goes to a different level once the postseason starts,” said teammate Nelson Cruz, who homered off the catwalk in the third inning.

Last year, Arozarena stole the national spotlight by crushing 10 home runs in his last 18 postseason games. Overall, the rookie rapped out 29 postseason hits, won AL Championship Series MVP honors and almost single-handedly carried Tampa Bay’s lineup to the World Series.

What could Arozarena possibly do for an encore this postseason? Put on his cowboy boots and rewrite the record books again. In his 2021 playoff debut, Arozarena became the first player to homer and steal home in the same postseason game.

“I put the boots on before the game, just like I did before the first game of the playoffs last year, and in that playoff game against the Yankees, I hit a home run,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I hit a home run today, so that just shows that the magic is working from the boots.”

• In postseason history, teams taking a 1-0 lead in any best-of-five series have gone on to win the series 101 of 140 times (72%).

• In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams winning Game 1 in their home ballpark have advanced 33 of 43 times (77%). This excludes 2020, when the Division Series were played at neutral sites.

So it was just like last October, only with a home crowd of 27,419 feeding off his energy instead of doing it at a neutral site in San Diego or Arlington.

“The home run certainly felt that way. The steal of home, that was one of the cooler things I’ve seen on a baseball field,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Special player. He certainly gets up for the moment. He has proven that day in and day out, and definitely when it’s postseason time.”

Arozarena’s October magic was working from the start of Game 1. In the first inning, he worked a leadoff walk against Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez and sped home on rookie shortstop Wander Franco’s RBI double, capitalizing when center fielder Kiké Hernández bobbled the ball.

“That’s how he plays. He busts it down the line, whether it’s a ground ball to short or whether it’s a ball in the gap,” Cash said. “You’re going to have to stop him.”

Easier said than done, apparently.

In the fifth inning, Arozarena blasted a 3-2 fastball from right-hander Nick Pivetta 397 feet to left, giving the Rays a 4-0 lead. He patted his chest with his right hand, looked into Tampa Bay’s dugout as he pointed to the ground in front of him, then discarded his bat.

It was Arozarena’s 11th home run in a span of 19 postseason games, tied for second most in AL/NL history in such a span and trailing only Babe Ruth (12 from 1923-32). Arozarena has hit the third-most homers in a player’s first 26 career postseason games, behind only Carlos Beltran (13) and Cruz (12). His postseason home run total would put him atop the franchise leaderboard for 22 teams, including the Rays.

“I said it three times tonight: That’s got to be the Rookie of the Year,” said starter Shane McClanahan, who pitched five scoreless innings to earn the win. “What that guy does every single day on a baseball field is so special, and I’m so lucky we have him on our team because I don’t want to face him.”

When Arozarena trotted back to his position in the sixth inning, he was serenaded by chants of “Ran-dy, Ran-dy, Ran-dy” from the fans in the left-field seats.

“I’m very happy for the way they received me and the way that they’re always supporting me out there,” Arozarena said. “I go out there because I’m trying to give them a show, and I know they want to see something.”

They saw something, all right. A few innings later, the whole ballpark was chanting Arozarena’s name.

With two outs in the seventh and Boston lefty Josh Taylor on the mound, third baseman Rafael Devers shifted off the bag. Arozarena took a big lead off third base then broke for home as Taylor came set. Taylor stepped off and fired home, but it wasn’t in time. By the time catcher Christian Vázquez caught the ball, Arozarena already had dove in headfirst for the first successful steal of home in the playoffs since the Cubs' Javier Báez in Game 1 of the 2016 NLDS.

“I noticed that the pitcher wasn’t really watching for me or covering for me, and I saw the third baseman was pretty far away in respect to where I was at,” Arozarena said. “I was looking over to [third-base coach Rodney] Linares, telling him, ‘Hey, I’m going to go. I’m going to go.’ Peeked over and saw Cash give him the green light as well, so that’s when I decided to take off.”

“It’s basically his fearlessness, his athleticism and being able to do it. We don’t practice that,” Cash added. “It ultimately comes down to his decision-making and his ability to react at that pivotal moment.”

Keep in mind that Báez stole home after a pitch and a throw down to third base. The last postseason steal of home on a pitch, by Marquis Grissom in the 1997 ALCS, came after a missed bunt on a squeeze attempt. So Arozarena pulled off the first steal of home without a pickoff throw, bunt attempt, swing by the batter or catcher throwing behind the runner in postseason play since Jackie Robinson in the 1955 World Series.

“This game is all about history, and any time you are putting your name in those categories like Randy has done -- I’ve never seen anything like [he was] in 2020, and hopefully I’ll say that here at the end of 2021,” Cash said.