SAN DIEGO — The Rays are one loss away from the most epic collapse in 16 years. Their hitters have stopped hitting. Their lockdown bullpen has stopped locking games down. Their smothering defense has stopped smothering.
So surely they are feeling down as they head to Saturday’s Game 7 of an American League Championship Series they once led 3-0, right?
“I was encouraged that the offense kind of got going there,” said manager Kevin Cash. “We’ll look for some carryover.”
“Honestly, I feel good,” said Blake Snell, who took the loss in Game 6. “I feel like these guys are starting to get it going. They’re talking a little bit more, getting a little more confident.”
“The fair share of guys in that locker room have had their backs against the wall at some point, and would be fighting for this opportunity,” said catcher Mike Zunino. “And we have it. It’s right there ready to go.”
Well, they have to say that, right? The Rays lost 7-4 to the Astros, Snell openly questioned his manager’s decision to remove him in the fifth inning and Zunino broke a bat over his knee in frustration. Houston has crushed their spirits, right?
Actually, said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, “When I looked over at their dugout in the first three innings, it almost seemed like they had more energy than we did. It almost seemed like they wanted it more than us.” He began yelling, trying to hype up his teammates. We’ve got the skillset, we’ve got the guys to win this ballgame! But we gotta want it more than them!
“I don’t think they’re down right now,” he said. “I think they’re still very positive going into the game tomorrow.”
Take your pick of narratives for Game 7. America’s Sweethearts vs. America’s Most Wanted. Going with the stats vs. going with the gut. Run prevention vs. run creation. But no one on either side seems to think that momentum will play too much of a role.
“We take it as a one-game series right now,” said Zunino. “If we were in their boat, would it be any different? We’re 3–3 right now. Someone’s gotta win tomorrow.”
If that someone is the Astros, they will complete the most impressive comeback in the last 16 years of baseball. Thirty-eight teams have dug an 0–3 hole in a seven-game series. Only one, the 2004 Red Sox, won it. A group of Astros watched a documentary on that team after winning Game 4. They feel like they are in a movie, they say. (Ten months after the revelation that the 2017 Astros cheated their way to a title, they and the public might disagree about who is the villain in that movie.)
Still, said Correa, “If we don’t get that win, then it’s all meant nothing.”
The Astros are dangerous, and Tampa Bay has scuffled lately. Even left fielder Randy Arozarena, who early in the postseason seemed to be the best hitter this planet has ever produced, is hitless in his last five at-bats. The non-Arozarena Rays have hit .180 with six home runs in the six games. They have struck out in 37% of their at-bats.
Cash, who had pushed all the right buttons until Friday, removed Snell with two on and no outs in the fifth and brought in righty Diego Castillo. The Rays had not allowed an inherited runner to score all series, but the Astros had already seen Castillo twice in the series. Whether it was familiarity, overuse or—as Snell theorized—an abbreviated warmup because of how quickly the jam developed, both of Snell’s runners scored. Then so did two of Castillo’s.
The third of these scored largely because regular second baseman Brandon Lowe, playing left, failed to hit the cutoff man for a relay at the plate. Two innings later, second baseman Mike Brosseau got a glove on a ball but failed to make a play. And through it all, Zunino had three passed balls.
Cash shrugged off the concerns. “I’ve seen these guys play such clean baseball over and over again,” he said. “We’ve got a track record of it.”
They’ve got a track record of more than that. The Rays were the best team in the American League this season; the Astros could not even muster a winning record. Only once this season did the Rays lose four straight. And on Friday, they kept Game 6 close enough that Houston had to use its closer, Ryan Pressly, for the third straight day, and its top set-up man, Cristian Javier, for the second in three. They scored twice off Javier and hit a ball hard off of Pressly. They believe that is its own kind of momentum.
The Astros hope to be the 2004 Red Sox. The Rays hope to be the 2020 Rays.