How bizarre was Game One of the American League Championship Series? Aside from being played in a National League ballpark, that is? Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays having a barely quenchable thirst for doing things the hard way and making the other guys do things likewise?
They beat the Houston Astros 2-1 Sunday night. Just as they beat the New York Yankees 2-1 to get here in the first place. Except that’s where the similarities end, no matter how good the Rays are at minimalism.
They’re to the low score what the Astros are to the big bang. They’ve played three postseason games thus far scoring two runs or less—and won two. Everyone else this postseason scoring two or less? Three wins, nineteen losses.
They struck out thirteen times against Framber Valdez and three Houston relief pitchers—and won. Just the way they did against the Yankees to get to the ALCS, and just the way nobody else this postseason has.
The Rays are about as intimidated by striking out as David was by Goliath. All year long including this postseason, you can look it up, they struck out thirteen times or more in twelve games—and won eight. Anyone else? Not even close. They’d rather strike out than hit into double plays.
They endured Sunday night without going to most of their A-list bullpen bulls. Nick Andersen and Peter Fairbanks didn’t even poke their noses out of their holes. Remember: there’ll be no days off during the ALCS, either. He who tends his bullpen best is liable to be he who survives with the least damage.
The lone Rays A-lister available Sunday after last Friday’s Yankee wrestling match was Diego Castillo. Largely because the chunky righthander himself told his boss he had at least an inning in him despite throwing 29 pitches over two innings to end the ALDS.
“Man,” said manager Kevin Cash after Sunday’s game, “he’s a stud. He was the one that was available between Nick, Pete and himself. We felt he could give us an inning.” So Cash brought him in to squelch a bases-loaded mess into which C-list reliever Aaron Loup managed to hand the Astros in the top of the eighth. No pressure.
Castillo threw one pitch to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an intended sinkerball that hung up around Gurriel’s hands. Gurriel whacked it on the ground up the middle and right to the oncoming Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe executed the step-and-throw inning-ending, disaster-ducking double play.
“We needed the ball on the ground,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino after the game. “That’s the first thing. When Cashie left the mound, I told [third baseman Mike] Brosseau that he was going to get the ground ball.” So Lowe got it instead. Nobody’s perfect.
Sunday night wasn’t a Night of the Pitchers with a dramatic eighth-inning home run making the final difference between the two top teams in the American League East. This was the Amazing Randi versus David Copperfield with one hand behind their backs and one eye obstructed behind a patch.
It was the night the Astros’ young lefthanded lancer Framber Valdez came pretty much as advertised out of the chute. And, the night the Rays’ lefthanded, former Cy Young Award winning veteran Blake Snell came to prove he could get away with sticking his head into the lion’s mouth and yanking it out the split half second before the lion could snap its jaws around his neck.
It was the night the designated home team Rays went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position and left nine men on base, versus the designated visiting Astros went 2-for-8 with men in scoring position and left ten men on, with both teams having what looked like scores in the making snuffed by swift and slick pitching to some swift and slick infield defense.
It was also the night Jose Altuve hit a Snell meatball into the left field seats on 2-1 in the top of the first, Randy Arozarena found a Valdez sinker that didn’t sink under the middle of the zone to sink behind the center field fence in the bottom of the fourth, and a leadoff walk followed by a pair of grounders back to the mound and a clean base hit plating Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the bottom of the fifth.
From there it was a contest to see whose bullpen depth mattered more and whose offense might turn possibles into plotzes worse. When it finally finished, the Rays stood at 33-0 when when leading after the seventh this year and holding a Show-leading 73-game winning streak when leading in the eighth.
They also stood proud Sunday night with a now 16-5 record in one-run 2020 games, the .762 winning percentage the best in major league history. The little engine that could? The Rays are the little engine that do.
“The one thing you learn about our club over 60 or 162,” Cash told reporters, “we’re in a lot of tight ballgames. And tight ballgames, you’ve got to teach yourself how to win those. That’s mistake-free, playing clean. There’s no margin for error and I think our guys take that approach every single night when they take the field.”
Tight ballgames? If Game One got any tighter there would have been crash carts in the cutout-filled seats and oxygen ventilators in the on-deck circles.
“They do some things that are unusual,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker before the game. If understatement is an irrevocable requirement for Manager of the Year, Baker might have this year’s award nailed down tight shut.
But Cash solidified his own airtight case, taking baseball’s version of of the 99 Cent Store (O Woolworth, where is thy sting?) to the top of the American League East irregular season heap and to the postseason’s number-one seed. He’s the director of the Rays starring in The Little Bang Theory.
They shoved the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild card series in half a blink, wrangled the Empire Emeritus out of the division series, and neutralised the postseason-resurgent Astros’ big bats into cardboard tubes to open this week’s showdown.
They did it despite Snell seeming bent on setting new major league records for getting himself into more full counts than the law allows and escaping when it looked like the coppers had the cuffs around his wrists ready to click shut.
They did it despite Valdez striking out eight in six mostly splendid innings and the youthful enough Astros bullpen looking as though they’d been studying the Rays for what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
No, the Rays had to suck the Astros into joining them for an act that made the Flying Wallendas resemble cartoon amateurs. They even had to find their own kind of exclamation point, with Castillo striking out Altuve, the pint size power plant who’d started the evening with the long ball, on a nice, nasty, diving-away slider to close it out at last.
Last fall, the Rays lost a division series to the Astros in five games but proved they could play up to and with the big beasts when given the chance. This fall they’re proving that the great white whales don’t stand that much of a chance against a pack of hell-bent-for-blubber anchovies. So far.