ST. PETERSBURG — In baseball’s scorebook vernacular, it was 8-6-2, a simple fourth-inning notation. It represented so much more.
Center fielder to shortstop to catcher.
Kevin Kiermaier to Willy Adames to Travis d’Arnaud.
Two perfect throws and a nicely executed sweep tag to cut down Jose Altuve at the plate. The Astros couldn’t reverse momentum. The Rays, leading by three runs, remained in control.
“That was probably the biggest play of the game,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Tuesday night’s 4-1 victory against the Astros in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field. “You’re not talking about a catcher running around or some big lumbering guy. It’s Jose Altuve.’’
It required one of the best defensive sequences of this season (or any season).
“There was literally no margin for error,’’ Kiermaier said. “And the degree of difficulty was pretty large. But it couldn’t have been more perfect.
“As it turned out, with the Astros getting the tying run to the plate (in the ninth inning), that play became even more huge.’’
Fans might first remember the Rays’ home runs, the overpowering start of Diego Castillo or the bullpen’s stellar work. But when the Astros couldn’t cut into the lead, the defensive gem loomed especially large.
With Altuve on first base, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez scorched a one-out liner to the gap that one-hopped the center-field wall.
It looked like an RBI double off left-hander Ryan Yarbrough and a potential trouble spot.
Only it wasn’t.
Kiermaier to Adames to d’Arnaud.
Every millisecond mattered. After Altuve was thrown out, Nick Anderson was summoned to retire Yuli Gurriel (with Alvarez getting to third on a wild pitch) and the Rays had preserved a 3-0 advantage.
“It was definitely a moment,’’ Kiermaier said.
What kind of moment?
Kiermaier was playing Alvarez to left-center. Off the bat, Alvarez’s drive was more toward right-center, so Kiermaier was on the run to his left. He appeared to be perfectly tracking Alvarez’s shot. For a moment, it looked like the kind of chance Kiermaier might take.
But he recognized the danger, took a different angle and was there for a high one-hop carom off the wall.
“It bounced really high and it seemed like it took forever to come down,’’ Kiermaier said.
He threw a perfect on-the-fly relay to Adames, who camped in short center field in cutoff position.
“I knew if I made a good throw to Willy, with his arm strength, we had a chance,’’ Kiermaier said.
In one motion, Adames caught the relay softly in his glove, then whirled and threw toward the plate as Altuve reached the three-quarter mark down the third-base line.
“That’s a play I always want to make,’’ Adames said. “I always want to try to make the throw.’’
At the plate, d’Arnaud was poised for the catch. In his peripheral vision, he saw Altuve charging, faster than he expected.
Altuve tried to sneak in the back door, sliding feet first and catching the plate with his left hand. But Adames’ on-the-fly strike was true to d’Arnaud, who nabbed Altuve with a perfect sweep tag.
“Not many shortstops can put it on a dime like he just did,’’ Cash said.
“That thing was on a line,’’ d’Arnaud said. “It looked like it was going to bounce and it stayed up the whole time. I knew I had to tag toward the bag and I was able to hit his arm just before he got to the plate. That was huge.’’
Everyone in Tropicana Field could read the lips of the ever-electric Adames: “Let’s gooooooo!’’
“I was excited,’’ Adames said.
“Plays like that, they’re contagious,’’ Rays designated hitter Tommy Pham said. “It usually leads to more great plays.’’
On cue, Adames led off the bottom of the fourth with a monstrous 421-foot solo homer, which caromed off the Trop’s D-ring catwalk, to provide a 4-0 lead.
On a night with double-digit hits, ample power, bullpen mastery and the fourth-inning knockout of Astros ace Justin Verlander, there were storylines galore.
But for the Astros, frustration hit its apex with a combination that might play well in the Florida Lottery’s Pick 3 — 8-6-2 — and a notation that deserved a star in the scorebook.
Kiermaier to Adames to d’Arnaud.
On the Rays’ night to shine, it was a sparkling moment.
And a play that will continue to resonate.