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Can the Rays’ ’25-piece puzzle’ solve the Astros?

John Romano: The ALDS that starts Friday in Houston comes with a warning label
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) fields and throws balls during a workout Thursday in preparation for the opening of the first American League Division Series game Friday against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) fields and throws balls during a workout Thursday in preparation for the opening of the first American League Division Series game Friday against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 4, 2019
Updated Oct. 4, 2019

HOUSTON — Good team. Sweet story. And destined to get crushed.

That’s the perception, right? The Rays are basically the semi-interesting character actors who eventually get punched out by October’s stars. In today’s case, the Astros of Houston.

And, honestly, why wouldn’t people think that?

Houston’s Game 1 and 2 starters will finish 1 and 2 in the Cy Young race. Their third baseman might be the American League MVP. Their second baseman was the MVP a couple of years ago.

So, from a distance, that storyline makes perfect sense.

But there’s a warning label that should accompany the American League Division Series. When viewed as an ensemble, this Rays team is more dangerous than it appears.

That’s been the secret of Tampa Bay’s success going back a decade. They can’t afford big-dollar players, so they create facsimiles with spare parts and platoons.

Take Houston first baseman Yuri Gurriel. Impressive player, right? Hit 31 home runs and drove in 104 runs. Meanwhile, the Rays had five different players start at least 10 games at first base and they combined to hit more home runs and drive in more runs than Houston’s first basemen.

“We’re a 25-piece puzzle,’’ said general manager Erik Neander. “And they couldn’t have fit together any better than what we’ve seen this season.’’

You saw a perfect example of this in the wild-card game against Oakland. Few Rays hitters were hotter down the stretch than Ji-Man Choi. In the final 12 games of the regular season, he hit five home runs, drove in 12 and had an on-base percentage of .423.

So, naturally, he started the wild-card game on the bench. Instead, Tampa Bay’s first baseman was Yandy Diaz, who had not played a game in the field in more than two months.

Diaz began the game with a leadoff homer and added another home run and single before being replaced at first by Choi.

Meanwhile, Matt Duffy is one of the few Rays hitters with postseason experience. He started the wild-card game, got a hit in his first at-bat, and then was pulled for Brandon Lowe.

The moves all made sense from matchup perspectives, but they also require players to be willing to share their positions in an era when more at-bats can mean millions of dollars in salary.

“I want to be in the game. Everybody wants to be in the game,’’ Duffy said later. “But I don’t feel bad about Brandon Lowe taking at-bats away from me. The kid can hit. The way we look at it is, you do your part and then you trust the next guy is going to do his part. That’s how we’ve operated all year, so no one is going to be surprised by it in the postseason.’’

That sounds simple, but it’s not always an easy sell. The Rays do it by convincing players that their careers will be better served by capitalizing on what they do best.

It’s probably no coincidence that Diaz, Avisail Garcia and Travis d’Arnaud all had career highs in home runs after coming to Tampa Bay in 2019.

“Our goal is to try to (help) a lot of these players that — and I’ve said it over and over now — kind of fall through the cracks,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “We put them in the best position for them to succeed.’’

The front office gets most of the credit for finding these undervalued players, but Cash is the guy who has to get them to buy into the idea. In a way, it may be his greatest contribution to the club.

“It’s all Kevin and his staff,’’ said Neander. “They’re authentic, they’re transparent, they’re sincere, they’re consistent. The players know what their intentions are, and they know the spirit of the team is to win games, so they put the team above any individual.

“It’s gotten to the point now where we’ve had some (good) results and that always helps. You get the right results and you get the buy-in. There are times when these decisions are unpopular, but we’re still standing and we’re still playing, and the more you do that the more these guys buy-in.’’

So, yes, Houston has Jason Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. And Houston has Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and George Springer.

And, naturally, the betting lines consider the Astros to be heavy favorites in the series. The Rays don’t take it personally. They just don’t necessarily believe it.

“The guys in this room can do special things if we play our roles and handle our business,’’ said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “Look at us now. We’re advancing to a division series against a great Houston team. Just don’t count us out. Ever.’’

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

Rays-Astros AL Division Series schedule

(Best-of-five)

Game 1: Friday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 2 p.m. (FS1)

Game 2: Saturday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 9 p.m. (FS1)

Game 3: Monday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (MLBN/FS1)

*Game 4: Tuesday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (FS1)

*Game 5: Oct. 10: Tampa Bay at Houston, TBD (FS1)

*if necessary


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