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Rays roar back, beat Astros before rollicking Trop crowd

A 3-run homer by Kevin Kiermaier got Rays started and they had quite a blast, while Charlie Morton delivered a strong start.

ST. PETERSBURG — The exact genesis of the revival of the Rays that played out in Monday’s 10-3 AL Division Series and season-extending win over the Astros is hard to define.

Maybe the business-as-usual approach by manager Kevin Cash, teasing players about their lack of hitting with his night-before lineup texts rather than making a speech or a big deal about the dire circumstances of being a game from elimination.

Or when they got a sense and a sampling of the energy the rollicking Tropicana Field crowd of 32,251, largest since 2016, provided for the first home playoff game in six years.

The way good old Charlie Morton battled back from a rough, 31-pitch first inning that included a homer by Jose Altuve on his eighth pitch to deliver a solid five innings.

How after singling in the second for their first hit, Avisail Garcia clapped demonstratively, pointed to the dugout, imploring his teammates to get going. And Travis d’Arnaud joining him on the bases after being hit by a Zack Greinke pitch, forming their first early-game threat of the series.

But it was quite obvious when the resuscitation became official:

Kevin Kiermaier launching a three-run homer in the second to give them a lead they relished and wouldn’t relinquish.

“That was the moment when everyone was like, ‘Whew, okay, we can relax,’ ’’ infielder Matt Duffy said. “After that, all of a sudden the at-bats, everybody was a little more relaxed. The swings were a little bit more compact. It was like, everybody was able to breathe for a minute after that. And then we really took off.’’

And the Rays didn’t stop, with Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames also going deep for a team postseason record-tying power display, until ensuring they will play again today, extending the best-of-five series to at least a Game 4 with a 7:07 start at the Trop.

“We all felt like we were going to win (Monday),’’ Kiermaier said in the happy home clubhouse. “”We just had that feeling that this season, we were not going to allow it to end today. And we don’t want it to end (Tuesday), or a couple days after that.’’

That challenge, of beating the best team in the majors three straight after losing the first two, will only get tougher.

Even more so as the Astros made the interesting, if not panicked, decision, to go with ace Justin Verlander Tuesday, the first time in his 15-year career he will start on three days’ rest. The Rays will start Diego Castillo in what will be a bullpen day.

The Rays knew they’d again have to face Verlander, who threw seven shutout innings in the opener, again to win the series. If nothing else, they figure they’re probably better off doing so with him on short rest rather than an extra day in Game 5, though equally effective Gerrit Cole will be looming then.

“We’ll worry about that (Tuesday),’’ Cash said. “Right now, the guys are pretty pumped about what they just did.’’

For good reason.

Cash never wants any credit but he set the proper no-pressure tone, teasing Lowe in his text to get an (adjective deleted) hit, ragging on Kiermaier “for a month, like, ‘Are you going to do something?’ ”

Also of assistance, the human energy machine known as Guillermo Heredia, who, while not on the roster, made sure with words and music early Monday that his mates were ready for the 1:05 start. “The heartbeat of this team,’’ Kiermaier said.

Knowing they were facing Greinke, the long-time ace who is actually the weak link about Houston’s talented trio of starters, after being handcuffed by Verlander and Cole helped. “Not taking anything away from Greinke,’’ hitting coach Chad Mottola said, “but even when he’s on, it’s a more comfortable at-bat than the other two guys.’’

So did the roaring support of the crowd, in quantity and quality. “The crowd was unbelievable,’’ said outfielder Austin Meadows. “To pack out the stadium, the entire top deck, and waving those towels around, we fed off that energy. It was huge.’’

They still had to play, of course, and after Morton battled through the first allowing only the one run and navigated a 21-pitch second, they saw him get into a familiar groove. He worked impressively through the fifth, striking out nine while allowing only three hits. He improved to 4-0, 0.95 in four career elimination games.

“I’ve seen this out of Charlie,’’ said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who was on the right side of two of Morton’s biggest postseason wins in 2017.

When Morton was done after 93 pitches, Chaz Roe, Brendan McKay, Oliver Drake (with two strong innings) and Colin Poche finished.

Garcia made sure after he singled that his teammates were feeling the building momentum, which was why he gestured to the dugout. "It’s big,’’ he said. “It’s the playoffs. Everything counts.’’ D’Arnaud getting hit by the two-out pitch to extend the inning was also key, Hinch said.

But that all led to the pivotal moment, the 2-1 changeup from Greinke that Kiermaier, who was 1-for-11 in the playoffs and 9-for-his-last-68, laced over the center-field fence, and nearly into the Rays tank.

“He got a pitch to hit right there and changed the whole series with that one swing,’’ Mottola said. “That’s what happens in the postseason.’’

And that’s why the Rays postseason will last at least one more day.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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