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Rays lose to Astros again, and here comes Game 7

A shaky start by Blake Snell and an unexpected bullpen meltdown lead to a 7-4 loss in the ALCS.
 
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz argues with Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado during the sixth inning of the American League Championship Series on Friday.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz argues with Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado during the sixth inning of the American League Championship Series on Friday. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 17, 2020|Updated Oct. 17, 2020

SAN DIEGO — These Rays are going to be known for something.

Friday’s 7-4 loss to the Astros set up a winner-take-all American League Championship Series Game 7 on Saturday night at Petco Park that will result in one of these extremes:

Either the Rays can rebound after three straight losses to earn their first World Series berth since 2008 and second in franchise history, and all the fame that will accompany it.

Or they can lose four straight after taking a 3-0 lead and join the 2004 Yankees (against the Red Sox) as the only other team to blow such a commanding advantage — and live with the infamy that will come with it.

“We’ve just got to bounce back,” manager Kevin Cash said. “This isn’t the scenario that we wanted leading up 3-0. But this is a resilient group. ... Encouraged that the offense kind of got going there, look for some carryover. We’re going to show up (Saturday) and do everything we can, like we always do, to find a way to win and pick each other up. The momentum, there’s no doubt momentum has shifted. But I would bet on this team being very available and capable of bouncing back.”

Veteran Charlie Morton, the postseason maestro, will start for the Rays against Tampa native Lance McCullers Jr. in a rematch of Game 2, with first pitch at 8:37 EST (or 7:07 if the NLCS is over).

Of the first 38 teams to take a 3-0 lead in a postseason series, 30 completed the sweep. Five won it in Game 5 and two in Game 6. Only the 2004 Red Sox even got to a seventh game, and they won it.

The Rays are trying not to look at the enormity of the task.

“I think we take it as a one-game series right now,” said catcher Mike Zunino, who showed his frustration, breaking a bat over his leg after a strikeout.

The Astros have a veteran and playoff-tested core group, and Morton — who was with them for the 2017 World Series championship season and 2018 — is not surprised they battled back.

“The guys over there, they’re not messing around,” Morton said. “I think we realize that, and we’re just going to have to come out (Saturday) and we’re going to have to fight the whole game.”

There is also motivation for the Astros in response to the criticism heaped on them for the cheating scandal.

“You’ve got to love this team,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Well, some people hate this team. But you’ve got to respect this team. ... We’re not through writing history."

The Rays should have the benefit of experience in a win-or-go-home game just nine days ago, when they beat the Yankees and ace Gerrit Cole in the fifth and deciding game of the ALDS.

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“I hope (it helps) a lot,” Cash said. “Hopefully, we get a similar outcome as well. Look, we played a lot of tense games in the regular season. The postseason is escalated because of the magnitude of the games and what it means to keep on playing or not. … We went kind of toe-to-toe and expect the same tomorrow.”

Offense has been the issue for the Rays in this series, and in the second inning Friday they got the two things they were looking for — a big hit and an early lead.

Brandon Lowe, 4-for-45 in the postseason, singled with one out off Astros lefty Framber Valdez, and Willy Adames delivered a two-out RBI double.

Starter Blake Snell held the lead but wasn’t sharp. Cash’s decision to pull him after the first two batters reached in the fifth inning and bring in Diego Castillo was a key point, and a move that didn’t work, either, as the Astros scored four.

Cash said the move was “fairy clear.” Snell said he found it confusing and surprising, among other things. Based on video replays, he looked to say one bad word and a few others that questioned the decision.

“I was very confident that I was going to get out of the fifth inning and continue to go deeper into that ballgame,” Snell said. “So yes, it was frustrating, to say the least.”

Cash had reason to make the move. The bullpen had been dominant in most high-leverage moments, and Castillo extremely effective. When George Springer hit a ball through the infield that was positioned in and heavily shifted to bring in two runs, those were the first inherited runners the Rays bullpen allowed to score this postseason, having stranded the first 21 — most in major-league history.

“Trusted that Diego could come in there and basically do what he’s done all season long, and they got the better of us,” Cash said. “Pretty gut-wrenching feeling, but that’s the way it goes when you you’re making those decisions.”

The Astros got two more runs, one when Jose Altuve lashed a double to left and — as Lowe opted to throw to second — Springer came around to score. The other, a passed ball and a walk later, when Carlos Correa — who hit Thursday’s walkoff homer — grounded a single between third baseman Joey Wendle and Adames. The kind of ball that earlier in the series was a foot either way and caught.

The Astros expanded the lead to 7-1 by the seventh; two Manuel Margot homers got the Rays close enough to at least make it interesting in the ninth.

Cash said before the game that a key to getting the offense untracked was getting the hitters to put less pressure on themselves.

Now they all may be feeling it, facing the potential of what would be a historic collapse.

“They’re frustrated,” Cash said. “We’re all frustrated. But I don’t think they’re tensing up. I think they recognize that we’ve got an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special.”

One way or another.