SAN DIEGO — The Rays are one win from going to the World Series. And they have four chances to get there.
A tense 5-2 win Tuesday night over the Astros in the American League Championship Series puts the Rays in about as commanding a position as a team can be, with a three-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series.
To manager Kevin Cash, there is still a ways to go.
“A long way,” he said. “There’s reason to be excited for how we played. We’ve got to find a way to win a game (Wednesday). I’m very confident the mindset with this group will stay consistent, and we’ll do everything we can behind (starter Tyler) Glasnow to make plays and see where that takes us.”
The players were a little more candid.
“It’s amazing,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “It’s amazing. I knew this group would be capable of getting to this point. I didn’t have one doubt in my mind. ... This is what it’s all about. And I’m so proud to be a part of this and have so much fun with these guys. It’s an amazing feeling. It really is.'
“It’s crazy,” starter Ryan Yarbrough said. “It hasn’t really set in. We’re not taking anything for granted. We still have to win one more. But you get excited, especially when you have a guy like Tyler Glasnow on the mound (Wednesday). You can’t take it for granted. But it’s a crazy thing to imagine that you’re one win away from going to a World Series.”
“It feels pretty special,” said outfielder Hunter Renfroe. “Obviously there’s not many people that can say they’re one win away from the World Series, or making the playoffs period. It’s a pretty special moment. And obviously we feel good going into (Wednesday).”
For good reason.
Of the 38 teams to take a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, 37 have gone on to win the series. Only the 2004 Red Sox, in the ALCS against the Yankees, have rallied. Thirty of the teams completed the four-game sweep, five went to a fifth game and two to a Game 6.
Also encouraging: The Rays have had only one losing streak of four or more games this season, on the 0-5 road trip to Atlanta and Baltimore early in the regular season.
Tampa Bay’s first chance to earn its second trip to the World Series in franchise history is Wednesday, with first pitch at 8:40 p.m.
There was some talk about how the Rays were fortunate, and the Astros not, in how the first two games turned out.
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The Astros made their own mess Tuesday, and they soon might have plenty of time to reflect on it. The Rays took advantage of Houston’s repeated mistakes in a five-run sixth inning, with Joey Wendle and Renfroe knocking in two runs each, and the other forced in on back-to-back hit batters.
The Rays also got somewhat of a break when the 99 mph pitch that hit Kiermaier’s left hand in that inning — and later forced him from the game — caused only a bruise. He said he was sore but pleased X-rays were negative.
And the Rays continued to play outstanding defense. Kiermaier made a pair of highlight-worthy catches before leaving the game, shortstop Willy Adames was his usual dazzling self, Renfroe had two catches at critical moments in rightfield, Yandy Diaz pitched in at first base, and even reliever John Curtiss got in on the act with a play on a comebacker.
“Special game,” Cash said. “It started with Yarbs, then the pitching and the big hits taking advantage. In my opinion, the highlight was the defense again. ... It was unbelievable.''
The Astros threatened in the eighth, getting the first two on, but rookie reliever Ryan Thompson — a former Astros minor-leaguer — struck out Alex Bregman, then allowed a bases-loading infield single. Lefty Aaron Loup got Kyle Tucker, the Tampa Plant High product, on a liner to right, then Yuli Gurriel on a groundout.
And there was another threat in the ninth, when Diego Castillo walked pinch-hitter Abraham Toro and George Springer with one out, but then struck out Jose Altuve and got Michael Brantley on a fly out to end it.
The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the first on what seemed like a narrative-correcting homer by Altuve, the star second baseman whose first of two throwing errors in Monday’s Game 2 was a huge factor in the Rays' win as it led to Manuel Margot’s three-run homer.
But that script flipped back in the sixth inning as another throwing error by Altuve, who had not made one all season until Monday, helped start the Rays' five-run outburst.
Randy Arozarena, who would finish with a record-tying fourth three-hit game of the postseason, led off with a single. Brandon Lowe, the struggling team MVP, grounded a ball to the right side that Altuve fielded, turned toward second and bounced his throw. That put two Rays on with no outs and ended what had been a good night for Houston starter Jose Urquidy.
“He’s a great player, there’s no doubt he’s a really special player, a Hall of Fame-caliber player,” Cash said of Altuve. “It is surprising to see that. But you do whatever you can to make the most of the opportunities that the opposition presents you.”
More were to come.
Reliever Enoli Paredes allowed a single to Diaz that loaded the bases, and Paredes' night got worse from there.
Wendle, down 0-2 in the count, slapped an opposite-field single to left that scored two, putting the Rays up 2-1. It was his first hit on an 0-2 count of the season.
Then Margot added another first for the Rays — their first sacrifice bunt of the season. It moved runners to second and third. "We do have a bunt sign,'' said Cash, who called the play.
Paredes then made a total mess, hitting Kiermaier to load the bases, then Adames on the next pitch to force in a run.
The Astros switched to lefty Brooks Raley, and the Rays pinch-hit the right-handed power-hitting Renfroe, and the former Padre blooped a double to right that scored two more.
“At this point in the season, we’ll take them any way we can get them,” Cash said.
The Rays decided to start Yarbrough rather than have him pitch behind an opener, hoping he could get deep and allow them to avoid further taxing of the bullpen. That worked pretty well as Yarbrough allowed the solo homer on his eighth pitch to Altuve, then a solo shot to Michael Brantley leading off the sixth on his 82nd and final pitch.
Cash used Pete Fairbanks, Curtiss, Thompson and Loup and Castillo to get the final 12 outs.
"Another tense one,'' Cash said.