The pennant-winning Rays do several favours

Your American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, with Randy Arozarena (right front) holding his ALCS MVP award.

For those of you who still love to ponder baseball in economic terms alone, have your fun now. The third-lowest 2020 payroll in the Show just finished off the third-highest—after knocking off highest to have the opportunity. Shout it out loud. The Rays win the pennant! The Rays win the pennant!

They who have the gold don’t always rule. For that matter, neither do they who have the platinum.The Tampa Bay Rays—lucky to have a couple of steel pieces amidst a cache of aluminum, tin, and Reynolds Wrap—are one trip shy of the Promised Land as of Saturday night.

After pushing past the New York Yankees’s platinum a little over a week earlier, the Rays  melted the Houston Astros’ gold into a 4-2 win in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Playing twelve games in thirteen days, the Rays beat both in final win-or-be-gone games. That only begins to describe their flair for the impossible.

This collection of bargains enough to make you think Woolworth’s was reincarnated as a baseball team became the first in major league history to stand on the threshold of a postseason series sweep, lose the next three straight, then win the first elimination game they’d face in the set.

They became the first to send out a starting pitcher against another starting pitcher with whom he’d collaborated previously to win a seventh World Series game. Charlie Morton got the better of Lance McCullers, Jr. with five and two-thirds innings of two-hit shutout ball on his part and just a little help from the friends he says are an honour to play and compete with.

They became the first to feature a rookie hitting a seventh bomb just in the postseason, when left fielder and series MVP Randy Arozarena sent Lance McCullers, Jr.’s 2-2 fastball over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first—after McCullers hit Manuel Margot with the first pitch of the inning.

They had Mike Zunino—a Seattle trade surrender whose steady defense got undermined by a few passed balls in Game Six but whose power is steady enough when he isn’t injured—provide the rest of their Saturday night scoring with a one-out, full-count launch into the left field seats of McCullers in the second and a one-out sacrifice fly off Jose Urquidy working relief in the sixth.

And, after manager Kevin Cash hooked Morton with a better too soon than too late attitude, the Rays’ bullpen wavered and bent only in the eighth, when Carlos Correa—who’d hit Nick Anderson for the game-winning bomb in Game Five—knocked a bases-loaded two-run single off Pete Fairbanks, who then got Alex Bregman to climax his series-long futility with a furiously swinging strikeout.

If Morton follows through on earlier hints that he might actually retire at 37, he’ll retire as a member in good standing of one elite club. Name the five pitchers who’ve had multiple scoreless starts in postseason winner-takes-it-all games. The answers: Morton plus Madison Bumgarner, Bret Saberhagen, Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander.

Saturday night was Morton’s fourth time out in such a game and his third as a starter. In every one of them, he never threw a pitch while his team was behind. The modest righthander who starts his delivery slow motion before his right arm becomes a whip, whom the Rays could afford because his injury history made him a bargain, really has been late-career better than advertised. If you needed a reminder, he rid himself of thirteen of his twenty batters on three pitches or less.

Arozarena also became the first rookie to hit seven homers in a single postseason. He may have been the only one who wasn’t counting. “I try not to pay attention to the statistics,’’ he said postgame, “but with the Iinternet and everyone bringing it up, you’re kind of aware of it. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the statistics outside of me and what I can control.”

When Fairbanks shook off Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single to right to strike Josh Reddick out and get Aledmys Diaz to fly out to Margot in right, it would have touched off an all-night party in Tampa Bay if not for the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Those protocols also kept the jubilant Rays from much more than what Zunino said was confetti-tossing and Silly String shooting.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible . . . but there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes,” the catcher said post-game. That’s one reason why even the World Series winner, whomever it may prove to be, might be the first to reach the Promised Land and holler out, “Wait ’till next year,” hopeful that the pandemic recedes enough to let baseball get back to whatever normal it can achieve.

“Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other,” Morton said. “You adhere to protocols; you’re social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

It also kept baseball’s Public Enemy Number One in the wake of Astrogate from facing the slings, arrows, protest banners, and live catcalls sure to have greeted them on road trips if the pandemic hadn’t substituted cardboard cutouts for live fans.That was the biggest unexpected break the Astros—having enough with being exposed as illegal high-tech cheaters—could have received.

Fans settled for social media slappings plus masking and social distancing while greeting the Astros’ team bus live with slings, arrows, protest banners, trash cans (the mode by which they sent the illegally stolen signs to their hitters in 2017 and part of 2018) and live catcalls whenever the bus pulled into the road ballpark’s parking lot.

The Rays did the Astros and the rest of us another favour by pushing them home for the winter. Assume as you shouldn’t that the Los Angeles Dodgers send the Atlanta Braves home for the winter in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series Sunday. (The Braves aren’t going to go down without a fight, their Game Six futility to one side.) The Rays prevented a World Series dominated by too-much-is-more-than-enough talk about a grudge rematch.

There’s probably no way on earth Astrogate will be forgiven or forgotten for a long time to come. But the spectre haunting America of the Astros going back to the World Series this time around haunts no more. The last thing the Series needs when America needs the Series most is to be half dominated by Astrogate regurgitation and appetites for revenge.

Be certain the Astros will return to the Series in due course. When they do, they’re liable to be just about finished with what has to be done put Astrogate into the past at last—roster and organisation turnover. They have the makings of an impressive young bullpen and a few young positional talents ready to come into their own, too.

The Rays also did us all a bigger favour than even the foregoing. Not only will there be no losing team in the World Series, there’ll be only division winners squaring off. All that early postseason mess, all commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent wet dreams about permanently expanded postseasons. Put it behind you for now.

Just pray that Manfred doesn’t take the wrong message from it and dance this mess around permanently. Reminder: the Rays had the American League’s best irregular season record. And real division champions—of however truncated an irregular season—will battle to get to the Promised Land. That’s the way it should always be.

The only thing left is for the Rays to come to terms with going from faceless to familiar. That could prove the simplest and most pleasant of their battles.

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.

A nightmare on Keystone Street

Jose Altuve, shocked to his haunches by an unexpected and unlikely throwing problem.

Now hear this. Especially you, Astroworld. And you, too, anti-Astroworld. Jose Altuve deserves your sympathy and empathy. Not your scorn.

Some of the greatest fielders in the business come up short or falter off line. Much of the time it happens not when they’re doing what they shouldn’t ought to be doing but when they’re doing it the way they’re supposed to be doing.

Baseball’s irrevocable laws include that anything can happen—and usually does. Even and especially in the negative. It doesn’t just happen to men who know better but did what they knew going in might be wrong. It happens to the best in the business, to men who enter trying to do right and end up doing too wrong without even trying.

A six-time All-Star who has at least one Gold Glove on his resume doesn’t premeditate and plot to turn a mostly right battle of the pitchers into a Monty Python’s Flying Circus-like comedy of error and surreality with his team measuring on the wrong end of the laugh-that-you-might-not-weep meter. And landing on the brink of being swept into winter vacation.

Bad enough Altuve had two throws disobey his right arm’s orders in Game Two, especially since one of them might have been tried and convicted on the right side if Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel had gotten his mitt around instead of in front of the ball, even backhanding to try for it.

But all Altuve did in top of the sixth in Game Three was pick Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe’s bouncing grounder with vacuum cleaner hands, throw to shortstop Carlos Correa ready to start a double play . . . and watch as though witness to a murder as the ball bounced past Correa, handing the Rays first and second and nobody out.

Altuve might have preferred an on-the-spot assassination over what followed. Opposite-field two-run single. The first sacrifice bunt seen all postseason long, from a team who avoided the bunt like the coronavirus all year long. Back-to-back hit batsmen to re-load the bases and push a run home. A pinch-hit shuttlecock becoming a two-run double.

None of that’s on Altuve. He didn’t surrender those hits or hit those batters. Remember that.

A 5-1 Rays lead—turned a mere 5-2 when Michael Brantley hit a kind of excuse-me solo homer in the bottom of the sixth—wasn’t the way either Altuve or the Astros planned things after Altuve’s one-out solo bomb in the bottom of the first handed the Astros the 1-0 lead that would last exactly four more innings.

The two starting pitchers, Houston’s Jose Urquidy and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough, fenced sharply through five full, if you didn’t count Yarbrough’s slightly shaky second (walk, plunk). Urquidy’s harder stuff against Yarbrough’s repertoire of off-speed breakers that have movement enough to avoid being dismissed as slop.

They put the history minded in mind of Casey Stengel’s ancient observation, after the Ol’ Perfesser watched his Yankee craftsman Eddie Lopat duel Brooklyn Dodgers craftsman Preacher Roe in a 1952 World Series game:

Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.

Then Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy the hell out of there right after Altuve’s sad betrayal. He wasn’t going to let his sharp young righthander hang around in case fumble turned into funeral. His Astros had enough problems coming into this postseason in the first place.

Didn’t they manage to survive injuries, inconsistency, sleeping bats, and their sometimes self-amplified status as the Show’s number one bandits, just to sneak into commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired, sixteen-team postseason at all?

Don’t they have enough trouble going what’s now 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position this ALCS and sending not one of them home? Or leaving a combined 31 men on base? Against a collection of Rays known only to themselves and each other—until they get their acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, high-wire walkers, and human cannoballs on at the merest hint of a hard-hit ball?

The last must feel especially as though rubbing it into the usually proud, suddenly hapless Altuve. You can’t blame the man. His teammates and his skipper are probably trying to figure out just how—short of kidnapping—to keep the Rays from turning any more of these games into something straight out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite/there will be a show tonight/on trampoline.
The Hendersons will all be there/late of Pablo Fanques Faire/what a scene!
Over men and horses/hoops and garters/lastly through a hogshead of real fire—
in this way, Mr. K will challenge the world!

“Nobody feels worse than Jose, because he takes it very serious and takes it to heart,” said Baker after the game, mindful that Altuve has a history of all but beating himself senseless whenever he hits a slump period. “He’s one of ours, and we’ve all been through this before. Not in this spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting.”

The Rays’ Mr. K is manager Kevin Cash. He and his Hendersons are challenging the world, indeed. He has his Arozarenas, Kiermaiers, Margots, Renfroes, and Wendles going over men, horses, hoops, and garters.

He even had his relief pitcher John Curtiss going through the hogshead of fire in the seventh Tuesday night. Curtiss took a lunging leap to his right to spear Gurriel’s high bouncer to the third base side of the hill, and threw Gurriel out while springing up from his knees. We do this kinda stuff to ’em all through the picture!

About the only thing Mr. K didn’t have in the repertoire was his stout reliever Diego Castillo choosing the bottom of the ninth to form his own escape trap. Starting with a swinging strikeout, he walked pinch-hitter Abraham Toro plus George Springer back-to-back.<

Then, Castillo struck poor Altuve out on a check swing that may or may not have been a gift from plate umpire Jeff Nelson. The best explanation may have been Altuve leaning so far forward checking his swing that it looked as though his bat nicked across the front of the plate. At minimum, Nelson should have called for help to be absolutely sure.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered in the end, but still. And Castillo jammed Brantley into a fist fly to left center that Margot hustled in to grab to end it. The check swing won’t be dissected even a thirty-second as deep as will Altuve’s continuing throwing trouble.

There’s no good time to catch what sports calls the yips—the sudden inability of a ballplayer to execute what he’s been doing blindfolded all his life. And there isn’t always a good explanation for just how and why it happens. Just ask one of the most notorious cases, the only infielder in baseball who beat the yips back successfully while he still had a lot of career left.

“I can feel for Jose. There’s nothing worse in the world,” said Steve Sax, the one-time Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman whose thirty 1983 throwing errors were attributable to the yips—until, he once said, his final conversation with his dying father, when Dad told him it wasn’t a physical or mental block but unexpected lost confidence.

“It’s the most lonely place to be,” Sax continued in a telephone interview. “It’s embarrassing. It’s just awful. I hope he can grasp this as soon as possible because this thing is very simple. It’s right in front of him. So many people are going to say, ‘Oh, Jose, you have a mental block.’ He doesn’t. He has a temporary loss of confidence. It has nothing to do with his mental state. Something triggered him to start questioning his ability, that’s why he’s doing this. When he gets his confidence, this will disappear.”

The only problem is that the Astros’ postseason presence may disappear before Altuve’s problem or the Rays’ flying circus do. But he needed lots of help bringing the Astros to this brink and he got it, too. And exactly half of it wears Rays uniforms.

That goes for both enough Astro fans ready to plant the goat horns into Altuve’s forehead and enough anti-Astro fans proclaiming this, especially, is nothing but Astrogate karma. And don’t even think about killing his father to cure him.

The day of living dangerously

SHAZAM!! Manuel Margot, training for the Olympic pole-vault team in the second inning Tuesday.

If you thought like me that Game One was The Little Bang Theory, what should we call Game Two? How about, The Day of Living Dangerously? For the Tampa Bay Rays, that is. They beat the Houston Astros, 4-2, Monday afternoon, but it looked for awhile as though they decided to defy a suicide pact.

Actually, it looked as though their usually-reliable bullpen bull Nick Anderson made and then abrogated the suicide pact, at the last split second before his end of the bargain would have required him firing the bullet through his head.

He’d surrendered back-to-back-to-back singles to Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz. He gave up the run to get George Springer to whack into a step-and-throw double play to second. Then, he re-loaded the pillows with back-to-back, four-pitch walks to Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley.

For a few brief and none-too-shining moments, with the shadows crawling across San Diego’s Petco Park, you could see the Rays’ dreams of somehow, maybe chasing the Astros home for the winter a little prematurely by Astro standards going up in a cloud of dust when Alex Bregman hit Anderson’s fastball just off the middle to him.

All afternoon long, the Rays took everything the Astros dished out, which was about ten times as much as the Rays could muster, and still clung to the lead they took in the first after the nice Astros were generous to a fault with them with no score, two out, and Randy Arozarena on first with a base hit to left instead of his customary home run.

Specifically, Altuve proved the generous one. The usually sure-handed, sure-armed second baseman snapped up Ji-Man Choi’s grounder to shallow right into the shift but threw offline enough to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to set up first and second. Setting Manuel Margot up to hit Astro starter Lance McCullers, Jr.’s second pitch to him into the left field cutouts.

From there it went thus: McCullers, way out-pitching his former Astros rotation mate Charlie Morton . . . and leaving after seven innings, in the seventh of which Rays catcher Mike Zunino—with two out and nobody aboard—hit a 1-1 sinker that didn’t sink enough over the center field fence.

The Astros, Dr. Peppering the Rays at the plate, outhitting them 10-2-4 . . . and still unable to paint the scoreboard more than Carlos Correa hitting otherwise effective Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks’s 1-0 fastball a lot further over the center field fence than Zunino’s would travel.

Every Astro hitter except Bregman having at least one hit on the day . . . and still going a measly 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position.

Diver down . . .

The problem was the Rays playing like they thought they were the 1969 Mets. Acrobats, jugglers, and precision shooters in the field. Maybe the only thing the Rays didn’t have going for them on defense was the 82nd Airborne. And maybe they think, who the hell needs those guys after Margot’s shazam! in the top of the second.

Gurriel (one-out single) on third, Martin Maldonado (two-out ground-rule double) on second, two out, and Springer swinging on 1-1. The ball sailing up and toward the right field line. Margot chasing across the sun field, glove shielding his eyes enough to keep the ball in sight. The high sidewall coming into quicker sight as the ball angled to foul ground. Margot taking a flying leap.

Olympic pole vaulters don’t clear their bars like that. Do they?

He speared the ball one-handed a split second before his torso hit the wall’s top fence brace and he bent over that brace and fell into a straight-down dive on the far side, bending just in time not to land flat on his head. Then he sprang up almost as swiftly, somehow, thrusting his glove hand up in a perfect Lady Liberty impression.

Shazam!

The Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a typhoon from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’s been a real crowd in the park, that is.

When he sprang up almost as swiftly to show he held onto the ball, the Petco Park audience would have heaved a sigh of relief enough to blow a hurricane from the shores of California to the rock-bound coasts of Maine—if there’d been a real crowd in the park, that is.

After all the foregoing plus that near brain-scrambling pole vault of a catch, wouldn’t you think that even an Anderson who might still have been a little gassed or hung over from his Friday night’s labour would think twice before compelling a high-wire act with no guarantee of a trampoline to break his and the Rays’ fall.

Bregman’s high liner sent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier back. And back. To the track. At the wall. Caught. Game over. Crash carts taken off white-hot alert. Oxygen ventilators shut down for the night.

Every other Rays heart still threatening to break through their owners’ rib cages and skins. Every Astro probably wondering to themselves whether it would take nuclear weapons and exterminators to rid themselves of these death-defying pests. Maybe they’ll call the 82nd Airborne. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is out of business, you know.

 

The little bang theory

Diego Castillo, after closing the Rays’ ALCS Game One win Sunday night.

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.