The waiting is the hardest part

The Rays, looking just the way you expect a team that’s gone from the 3-0 threshold of the World Series to the 3-3 threshold of . . .

What the hell happened Friday? Did the Houston Astros merely iron up? Did the Tampa Bay Rays merely melt down? Was the truth somewhere in the middle? Does it mean the Astros getting the least likely trip to the World Series since 2004?

Forget the Beatles. This is Tom Petty’s turn to sing:

The waiting is the hardest part.
Every day you see one more card.
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.
The waiting is the hardest part.

Don’t the Astros and the Rays know it. We have to wait to Saturday to find out whose waiting was the hardest part for what redemption. The Rays couldn’t put the Astros away after a 3-0 American League Championship Series-opening lead, after all. What was once their set to win is now anybody’s to lose.

Every day, these Rays see one more card turned any way but their way. On Friday night the Astros didn’t need anyone to hit one out in the ninth to beat the further-dissembling, further-static Rays, 7-4, in Petco Park. You can’t win all your postseason games with eleventh-hour, record-book dramatics. Sometimes you have to win the old-fashioned way, catching your worthy adversary self-weakened and pouncing while the pouncing is good.

All the Astros needed other than a four-run fifth to overthrow an early Rays lead was to not remind the Rays to pay attention to the early warning signs. Such signs as their refusing to lay off Astros starter Framber Valdez’s swan-diving curve balls and make him throw more fastballs. Such signs as resisting the temptation to try hitting six-run homers whenever they did coax fastballs out of the young sprout.

They also needed to make the Rays forget that starting Blake Snell carried a risk, too. Entering Game Six only two Astros in the day’s starting lineup had career batting averages lower than .300 against him while seven had lifetime marks against him over .400.

It didn’t hurt, either, that Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ semi-regular second baseman playing left field Friday, chose the worst possible nanosecond to throw the wrong way when his partners could have cut an Astro run off at the plate and maybe stopped the fifth-inning bleed.

If he had stopped the bleed the Rays might be preparing for the World Series. Might. It’s not that the Rays are unaccustomed to doing things the hard way, it’s that they’re not getting too accustomed to making things more difficult than they should be.

And if you do that to these Astros, you discover the harder way that they aren’t exactly renowned for showing mercy to the walking wounded. They’re more liable to cut your heart out than let you live long enough to receive a transplant. When you have an opening, shove with your shoulders, Casey Stengel preached to his imperial 1950s Yankees. When the Astros have an opening, they shove with an Abrams tank.

You’ve got to love this team,” said manager Dusty Baker after the game. “Well, some people hate this team. But you’ve got to respect them.”

Well, the skipper has a point, alas. There is something perversely respect-worthy about a team that brought the wrath of baseball world down upon their heads all by themselves, slipped into a surrealistically-arrayed postseason experiment despite an irregular season losing record. They managed to seize that gift and turn it into this staggering an ALCS comeback, when it looked to all the world as though their season would end as ignominiously as their year began.

It doesn’t make the Astros lovable outside their own fan base. And that fan base remains divided almost as badly as the country now is politically speaking. But it does make them resemble the grand theft felon who withstands the heat, defies the doubt, and remakes/remodels his life far enough in the plus column. His crime won’t be forgotten no matter when it’s finally forgiven, but he’s making a powerful case for rehabilitation. So far.

Snell had to be better than his 2018 Cy Young Award-winning self to prevail. If he wasn’t, the Rays had to quit trying to channel their inner Murderer’s Row and get back to sending the merry-go-round going ’round on the bases—if they got there at all. Unfortunately, Snell spent so much time trying to find the wipeout strikeout pitch he pitched a dangerous game of chicken for four full innings before his day ended with two on and nobody out in the top of the fifth.

The only clean inning he threw was the third when he sandwiched a full count strikeout to George Springer between two slices of ground out from Martin Maldonado and Jose Altuve. It was barely enough to keep the Rays clinging to the 1-0 lead they snatched in the second, when Willy Adames hit an RBI double into the left center field gap and off the wall eluding Springer. It wasn’t enough to keep manager Kevin Cash from hooking Snell in the fifth and leaving Diego Castillo to get rid of the Astro pests.

No soap. Maldonado dropped a surprise sac bunt in front of the plate pushing Yuli Gurriel (leadoff walk after opening 0-1) to third and Aledmys Diaz (single) to second. Springer defied the left-side shift and squirted a two-run single through the right side of the infield.

Then the Rays’ vaunted defense suffered the unlikeliest brain vapour of the day—and maybe the season. The clowns unexpectedly disappeared the Raysling Brothers’ Circus aerialists and acrobats at the worst possible hour. Altuve hit one down the left field line that caromed right to Lowe. With Springer grinding toward third and being sent home, the Rays were set up perfectly for a play at the plate.

All Lowe had to do was hit his left-side cutoff man and Springer was an obituary. Except that Lowe threw to second. Where nobody was. Then, a walk and a passed ball allowing Altuve third later, Carlos Correa showed he was just as capable of sending a man home the easy was as he was going downtown in the bottom of the ninth, singling Altuve home with the fourth Astro run. The game turned out to be signed and sealed right there.

Think Altuve’s past that frightful attack of apparent yips that helped the Rays push the Astros up to the edge of the roof in the first place? He’s reached base eleven times in seventeen plate appearances since. He’s even delivered errorless play at second base. We can pronounce him recovered well enough. So far.

From there Cash’s usual bullpen virtuosity failed him. He sent barely-tried Shane McClanahan out to work the sixth and Brantley greeted him rudely hitting a 2-0 pitch over the left center field fence. The kid had to wriggle out a one-out single to retire the side with no further damage. Lucky him. Not.

Was Cash now managing just to live to play a Game Seven? After the Rays wasted first and second in the bottom of the sixth when Lowe dialed an inning-ending Area Code 4-6-3, Cash sent McClanahan back out for the seventh, most likely in the hope of just surviving to leave the rest of the Rays’ bullpen A-list fresh for Seven if need be.

The poor kid surrendered Astro runs six and seven on an RBI single by Brantley and a one-out sacrifice fly by Kyle Tucker, after which he walked Gurriel before Cash finally exercised a personal mercy clause and lifted the lad in favour of Jose Alvarado. After Zunino committed one of his three passed balls of the game—meaning the Rays likely sending Michael Perez out to catch Charlie Morton for Game Seven—Alvarado struck Josh Reddick out swinging for the side.

The side and a 7-1 Astros lead. Manuel Margot greeting Aaron Scrubb with a leadoff bomb in the bottom of the seventh turned into further abject Tampa Bay frustration when they grunted to first and third against Scrubb, chasing him in favour of Blake Taylor, but Randy Arozarena—to this point the Rays’ biggest blaster of the postseason—grounded out meekly to first base.

What was the point of Margot hammering a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth with two out when Adames would ground out for the side almost too swiftly? And, when pinch hitter Yoshi Tsutsumago singled with one off Astro closer Ryan Pressly just so Michael Brosseau could dial Area Code 6-4-3 to end it?

If you have the answer to those and other similar questions, the Rays need to know. Gravely.

This is more than just three straight elimination games the Astros have survived to force Game Seven. This is more than the Astros threatening to become the only team other than the 2004 Boston Red Sox to win the pennant after getting thatclose to being swept out of an ALCS.

“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,” Cash said after the game. “There’s no doubt the momentum has shifted, but I would bet on this team being very capable of bouncing back.”

Didn’t the Rays make the same bet on themselves before Games Four, Five, and Six, too? Remember, in baseball especially anything can happen—and usually does.

To an awful large chunk of baseball world, these Rays are the unassuming, studious, sum-of-parts talented Smart Kids trying to stay one step ahead of the school bullies after refusing to just let the bullies copy their mid-term exams. It doesn’t stop the bullies from copying all the time, as witness the Astros out-Raying the Rays in Game Five. But neither do the Smart Kids outsmart themselves entirely without more than an excuse-me counterattack.

Once upon a time the Astros were the smartest of the Smart Kids—before they were exposed as cheaters in disguise. Morton eventually went over to the new Smart Kids’ side. He gets to face Lance McCullers, Jr.—his old Astro rotation mater, with whom he once collaborated to win a World Series Game Seven. He’s also pondering whether his 37-year-old self may or may not pitch major league ball for the final time Saturday.

Morton out-dueled McCullers in Game Two this week with five shutout innings. “On a selfish level, I didn’t want this to be the last memory I had of the game,” he said while he was at it. “The way it’s had to go with [coronavirus] 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.”

The real-world Smart Kids, the Not-So-Smart Kids, and the Plain But Pure Enough Kids together, hope Game Seven won’t be the end of Morton’s and the Rays’ season, if not his career.

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