One shortstop, one swing, one win

Carlos Correa—no, he wasn’t conducting The Four Seasons, either.

Realistically, nobody thought the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros were going to play a short American League Championship Series. Not even when the Rays bedeviled and bedazzled their way to a 3-0 series lead.

But if the acrobatic and customarily timely Rays end up falling home for the winter, Carlos Correa may yet prove the one who drew up the tickets to be punched.

The Rays and did overcome their opener John Curtiss serving George Springer one pitch to drive off the third patio of the Western Metal Supply Co. building behind the left field fence. They had eight more innings to do it Thursday afternoon, and they did.

But can they overcome Nick Anderson serving Correa a 1-1 pitch to send over the center field fence with one out in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Astros, 4-3? Depending on the answer, the Rays will find themselves either going to the World Series or going home with questions to haunt them all winter and maybe beyond.

Maybe that sounds too pessimistic for a team still holding a 3-2 ALCS lead. But remember the 2004 New York Yankees. They still led that ALCS 3-2, too, despite the Boston Red Sox’s throwing a sweep prospect out the window at the eleventh hour and being on the apparent march. We still know how that worked out for the Empire Emeritus.

We also know the Rays and the Astros tried to play each other’s best games Thursday. The Rays showed long ball power at the plate—and little else. The Astros played the Rays’ bullpen game—and neutralised the Rays when things called for their usual merry-go-round approach. They left just enough room for Correa to wreck the Rays’ arguable best reliever of the year.

It’s not that Anderson was gassed or prone to doing things he wasn’t supposed to do, or that manager Kevin Cash failed to read his man fully. This wasn’t Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly throwing an already-overworked Byung-Hyun Kim out for a third inning to be ruined on his sixtieth pitch of the niight by Derek Jeter’s fabled Mr. November blast.

The only thing Anderson did was throw Correa a nasty fastball tailing toward the outer part of the zone. But the only thing Correa did was exercise an adjustment he said postgame that he made in the clubhouse cage, with hitting coach Alex Cintron, earlier on the afternoon, then send that would-be tailer into postseason immortality when it looked to most as though Game Five headed to extra innings.

Correa saved his manager Dusty Baker from doing what he would have had to do but with as much enthusiasm as a mid-20th century child taking his castor oil for an illness. Having pushed just about every bullpen chip he had to the middle of the table, Baker would likely have had to reach for his intended Game Six starter, Framber Valdez. He could match the Rays bullpen for bullpen through nine. After nine, he’d have made a suicide bet.

With one swing Correa saved Valdez for his intended assignment and put himself and the Astros into the record book. Name one other postseason game in which the winning team homered on the first and the final pitch. You can send Magellan on an around-the-world sail and come up with only one. The one Correa won.

Name any other player in Show history to hit two postseason game-winning home runs without ever doing it in the regular season? Did you say Red Sox legend David Ortiz? Big Papi had eleven in regular-season play. Did you say Bernie Williams, the longtime Yankee center field stalwart? Williams did it three times in regular-season play. But if you said Carlos Correa, give yourself a pat on the back at least as hearty as the flip Correa gave his bat as he proceeded up the first base line to run it out.

Name any other shortstop in Show history to hit a game-winning bomb in a postseason elimination before Correa teed off. If you said nobody, make that pat on the back a big pounding slap. Jeter’s rip off Kim? Tied the 2001 World Series at two games each. Ozzie Smith’s gone-crazy-folks blast off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer, in Game Five of the 1985 National League Championship Series? All that did was put the St. Louis Cardinals ahead 3-2.

Once again, Correa swings alone.

“That’s as big a moment as I’ve ever been involved in,” Baker said after Thursday’s game.  “That’s one of the reasons I came back . . . That’s as sweet as it gets right there.” Baker should know. In a nineteen-season playing career and a 23-season managing career, Baker was never part of any postseason game that ended with a home run until now.

(Yes, folks. That was the same Tom Niedenfuer who’d get destroyed in Game Six in 1985, when Tommy Lasorda thought it was perfectly safe to let him pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from going to the World Series, and Jack the Ripper thought it was even safer to hit a first-pitch three-run homer for which the Dodgers had no response in the bottom of that ninth.)

The magnitude of Correa’s blast is yet to find its full definition. That would require the Astros hanging in to win the ALCS. If they do, Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark has news for you: they’d buy Correa membership in a very exclusive club of players whose postseason game-winners kept their eventual World Series-winning teams from going home for the winter if they’d lost the games won by their game-winners.

That club now is merely Bill Mazeroski (Game Seven, 1960 World Series), Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (Game Six, 1991 World Series), Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 ALCS), and David Freese (Game Six, 2011 World Series). Mazeroski’s, of course, won that World Series. Puckett, Ortiz, Freese, and now Correa bought their teams another day to play.

Correa didn’t point to the fences the way Babe Ruth remains alleged to have done in the 1932 World Series, but Baker swore after the game Correa told him before going out to the plate in the ninth that he was going to end the game right there. Correa swore he told Jose Altuve the same thing.

“Please Lord,’’ Baker did admit to praying, “let us walk it off.”

“I wanted to drive the ball,” Correa told reporters, “and I felt I could do it. So when I was walking on the field, I said, ‘I’m going to end it’.’’

Until or unless someone else spills and says the shortstop and the skipper were full of it, give them the benefit of that doubt. It’s maybe the first such benefit any Astro has earned this year. They brought enough of that lack of benefit upon themselves in the Astrogate aftermath. They should have considered themselves sadly fortunate the pandemic-mandated empty ballparks in which they played kept them from facing maybe the most hostile road crowds baseball’s seen this side of its classic blood rivalries.

It’s going to be tough enough for the Astros to finish what’s been done only once before, rise from the dead to win after being down 3-0 in a postseason set. Third baseman Alex Bregman illuminated that for his teammates, say a few published reports: he showed them a documentary of those 2004 Red Sox.

Those Red Sox did it to their historic rivals. These Astros aren’t trying to take it to, say, the Oakland Athletics or the Texas Rangers. OK, so there’s no blood feud involved. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not one Astro has any particular animus against the Rays themselves. Just as happened in last year’s division series, the one the Rays almost swiped from the Astros, the Rays are just another obstacle on the Astros’ way back to the World Series. For now.

Are the Rays worried yet? Maybe they should be. Unless they can remember how to hit situationally and stop trying to get their Yankees on. Cash can say all he wants that he doesn’t think the Rays are getting home run happy, but all of a sudden the Rays are doing nearly all their scoring with the long ball.

That five-run fifth in Game Three was a usually-typical Rays uprising—single, force out, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, back-to-back hit batsmen the second of which forced in a run, two-run double. The only aberration was the bunt. The Rays didn’t sac bunt all year before then. (Neither did anyone else in this postseason.) Just like old Casey Stengel (and how today’s boring old-school farts forget!), the Rays don’t believe in surrendering outs normally.

Innings and rallies like that seem distant memories. And you can’t go to the World Series on any kind of memories.

They scored two of their three Game Four runs on a two-run homer. They scored all three of their Game Five runs with home runs. When first baseman Ji-Man Choi led off the top of the eighth pulling one into the right field seats off Astros reliever Josh James, it tied the score at three and had one and all thinking along with the Astros: “We have them right where they want us.”

Late innings. The Astros’ largely youthful bullpen spent for the day. The Rays’ other high-leverage bulls still lurking, with Baker in danger of having to burn Valdez and force himself into a Game Six alternative.

Then Correa shook away Bregman’s leadoff pop fly out to short right field, speared by Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe running toward the line from the infield shift/fourth-outfielder array. Correa took a ball one curve ball up and a little in, then swung and missed on an Anderson curve that dropped smack dab in the middle of the strike zone.

Then Anderson threw that fastball tailing away from the middle of the zone. It didn’t tail away quick enough to keep Correa from turning it into a satellite.

The Rays’ missing man refuses to surrender. Kevin Kiermaier hadn’t been seen since he was drilled on the wrist during that Game Three fifth-inning push, until he pinch-ran for Mike Zunino in the top of the ninth and stayed in the game for center field defense. His absence in Game Four and almost all Game Five probably hurt more than the Rays would ever admit.

“We like our chances,” Kiermaier said postgame. “We have a lot of confidence in our bunch that we’ll get the job done . . . We have to work at-bats, have solid approaches, move base to base like usual.”

They beat Valdez and company sort of that way in Game One, a solo homer, an RBI single, and their don’t-even-think-about-it bullpen. They’ll have to do it again in Game Six. Not even a lineup of nine Randy Arozarenas can hit home runs every time up.

Their best chance to hang in and win is playing Rayball and not letting the Astros even think about playing it. Thanks to Correa, the Astros now have other thoughts in mind.

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.