SAN DIEGO — The last of the 127 pitches the Rays threw on Thursday did them in, the Nick Anderson fastball that Carlos Correa hit over the centerfield fence with one out in the ninth to give the Astros a 4-3 walkoff win and extend the American League Championship Series to at least a sixth game on Friday.
But for a day when the Rays didn’t have a set starter and considered myriad options, they felt pretty good about the combined work of three rookies on the mound.
Put another way: Step right up if you would have predicted the Rays would be playing in Game 5 of the ALCS and the pitchers who got them through the first seven innings in a close game would have been John Curtiss, Josh Fleming and Aaron Slegers.
“We had a lot of options and a lot of discussions (Wednesday) night about how to go, (how to) navigate this game,” manager Kevin Cash said.
They settled on the right-handed Curtiss to open, given that he’d done it three times before, and his arsenal seemed a good match against the top of the Astros' order. George Springer crushed his first pitch for a homer, and he got a break to get out of the first when Jose Altuve continued his mistake-filled series and was picked off first.
Curtiss got the first out of the second before the Rays went to Fleming, the lefty who was a splashy 5-0, 2.28 during the season mostly as a starter and was added to the roster for this series, primarily to pitch in this game. With the series being played on consecutive days, teams needed either a fifth starter or to plan a bullpen day.
Fleming worked three innings, giving up a pair of runs when he allowed hits to three of the first four batters in the third, though a better throw from rightfielder Austin Meadows could have saved him the second run.
Then Slegers worked the next 2-2/3, allowing only one hit — though he made a throwing error on a comebacker that created some stress, but no runs, in the seventh — throwing 42 pitches.
Anderson worked a quick eighth after the Rays tied the game on Ji-Man Choi’s homer, but a fastball Correa was waiting for made for an unhappy ending.
“Can’t say enough about what Fleming, Slegers, Curtiss and, certainly, Nick did,” Cash said. “Slegers' workload was just unbelievable, that he was able to hold them right there, keep us within striking distance. The benefit of that is now we’ve got two big horses ready to go for us.”
That would be Blake Snell, who will start Game 6 on full rest (and with most of the other relievers available) and veteran Charlie Morton, if needed for Game 7.
Nick of time
Anderson said the pitch Correa hit out was not a bad one, an elevated fastball. The problem was that Correa was waiting for it. “After the pitch before, the curveball — it was a pretty good pitch — he was selling out for the heater the whole time, I guess,” Anderson said. After allowing only one hit to a right-handed batter during the season, Anderson has allowed five, including two homers. Is he, or are the hitters, doing anything different? “No,” he said.
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Arozarena making more history
Randy Arozarena’s fifth-inning homer was his sixth in the first 12 games of the postseason, tying the major-league rookie record set in 2008 by former Ray Evan Longoria. Arozarena also set two Rays postseason records, his 20 hits surpassing B.J. Upton’s 19 in 2008, and his 10 extra-base hits topping the nine by Upton and Longoria that same year. And he showed off his arm in leftfield, throwing out Altuve trying to stretch a single into a double in the sixth.
Cash honored by Sporting News
Cash was named the top AL manager by Sporting News, the second straight year he was honored in a survey of players, managers and executives. As usual, he deflected credit to the team. “Great recognition, honored, but I think that a lot of those awards come down to having really good teams, really good players on a good team, and a great staff to work with,” Cash said. “So I think that’s an organization award.” The official Manager of the Year award, voted by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, will be announced in November. Cash has finished third the last two years for that award.
One positive in Wednesday’s loss was the work of lefty reliever Jose Alvarado, who made an impressive one-inning return from a shoulder issue that sidelined him since mid-August. Alvarado started with strikeouts of Aledmys Díaz and Martín Maldonado, hitting 99 mph several times, and allowed just one single in a 22-pitch seventh. “Very encouraging,” Cash said. “Good for him. He’s worked so hard to get back and to be on this stage, not having your typical rehab outings (in the minors). … Give Jose a lot of credit for the way he has handled all this and building back up. And understanding that there were so many boxes to check for him to get back to being not the pitcher he was when he got hurt, the pitcher that we know he’s capable of. He certainly looked the part (Wednesday) with the big fastball, made a lot of competitive pitches, and will be factored in going forward with whatever opportunities present themselves.”
The Rays are the “home” team for Games 6 and 7 (if needed). … Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier was out of the lineup again due to his sore left wrist that was hit by a pitch Tuesday but pinch-ran and played defense in the ninth. … Cash moved struggling Brandon Lowe to the leadoff spot. He homered in the third, but his 1-for-5 extended his postseason slump to 4-for-45. … Lefty Framber Valdez starts Game 6 for the Astros ‚and while the Rays didn’t do much in the opener, Cash said, “hopefully that familiarity will play in our favor and get the bats going.” ... Astros reliever Josh James left when his back tightened up. Manager Dusty Baker said they’d know more Friday morning.