SAN DIEGO — All that angst, worry and dread that built over the three consecutive losses disappeared Saturday night.
The Rays are going to the World Series after all.
Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino hit home runs to give Tampa Bay the early lead needed to settle those nerves. Charlie Morton provided the calming start they were banking on, at least until he got taken out in the sixth inning. The infielders made the plays, and the relievers, eventually, got the final outs.
“I think it sums up our team,” Zunino said. “You go up 3-nothing and whether we get a little complacent, whether we get a little comfortable, whether we put a little pressure on ourselves to try to end it quicker, we took ourselves out of our game. Guys came back today. There was a real sense of calm. It felt how the clubhouse usually feels. And these guys responded.”
The 4-2 win in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series eliminated the Astros and sent the Rays to the World Series for the first time since 2008 and second in franchise history.
They will start play on Tuesday in Arlington, Texas, facing either the Braves or the Dodgers, who are playing their own Game 7 on Sunday night.
Which is certainly better than the alternative. With a loss, the Rays would have joined the 2004 Yankees as the only teams to lose a best-of-seven series after taking 3-0 leads. The Yankees' flop against the Red Sox stands alone among the 39 teams to be up 3-0.
They all felt pretty good about it Saturday night, pulling on their new T-shirts and caps while gathering on the field for the presentation of the league trophy and Arozarena’s ALCS MVP award, celebrating in the Petco Park clubhouse with confetti cannons and Silly String, then taking the party back to the resort hotel that has served as their bubble base the last two weeks.
“Pretty special feeling,” manager Kevin Cash said. "I don’t know if I’ve had many better other than getting married and having three kids. This is right there, right there below that. It can’t get much better than that . This is a special group to be a part of. … It’s fun to see them win games and just to be a part of it. …
“The last three days were pretty agonizing. There’s no doubt we definitely added to all of our stress levels. That’s a really good team over there. It would be wrong of anybody to assume that we were just going to walk through that. I probably would have rather got it done in Game 4 or 5 than winning it in Game 7.”
Though the Rays lost the momentum in failing three straight days to close out the ALCS, they insisted they never lost confidence, or faith.
"A pretty special group to be a part of," Morton said.
As tormenting as it was to see three chances to win the pennant slip away, team leader Kevin Kiermaier said he could tell by the pre-game vibe in the clubhouse, with loose attitude and loud music, they were in a good place Saturday.
“Thee first game (we lost) was whatever, then they won another one you’re sitting here thinking, ‘Okay. we’ve got to try to take this momentum away from them, and put them away as soon as possible,'” Kiermaier said. "Then they were able to get another one (Friday) night, and putting ourselves in a position that we didn’t envision for sure happened. ...
“We definitely felt the pressure, but we’ve stepped up all year. Our guys came to play (Saturday). We were the team. And that’s what’s helping us advance to the World Series.”
Cash had been talking for days about the need to get their offense going, saying before Saturday’s game he was confident they’d "break out a little bit here to give Charlie some runs.”
They apparently were listening this time, and right from the start.
After leadoff man Manuel Margot was hit by Lance McCullers Jr.'s first pitch and Brandon Lowe struck out, Arozarena delivered with a homer to center for a 2-0 lead.
There was some history attached, as it was Arozarena’s seventh homer of the postseason, most by any rookie, surpassing the six hit by former Ray Evan Longoria in 2008.
The Rays expanded the lead to 3-0 in the second on a 430-foot homer to left by Zunino, his second of the ALCS and fourth of the postseason.
And they added on the sixth, as Ji-Man Choi singled, went to second on Willy Adames' walk, third on Joey Wendle’s line out to right and scored on Zunino’s sac fly.
Morton, already the only pitcher with wins in three winner-take-all matchups, added to his collection. He was on his game from the start, zipping through the first five innings effectively and efficiently, allowing only one hit and throwing just 49 pitches.
"We’re lucky to have Charlie Morton," Cash said.
The bigger surprise was that Cash took him out at the first sign of trouble in the sixth, a one-out, four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado, then a two-out infield single by Jose Altuve.
Cash went to Nick Anderson, whose last outing ended with Carlos Correa’s walkoff homer in Game 5. Anderson got Michael Brantley to ground out, worked the seventh and into the eighth. He created a bit of a mess there allowing a one-out walk and a two-out single, and the Rays went next to Pete Fairbanks. A wild pitch and a bases-loading walk wasn’t a good way to start, and the two-run single by Carlos Correa that halved the lead had o be disconcerting to all.
But Fairbanks came back to strike out Alex Bregman, and on a 100.4 mph fastball at that, to end the eighth. A one-out single in the ninth by Yuli Gurriel churned stomachs again, but when rightfielder Manuel Margot caught Aledmys Diaz’s fly ball to end it, they could all exhale.
Fireworks shot from the scoreboard as they rushed toward the infield, tossing gloves and grabbing each other, gathering for the presentations and a team picture on the mound.
“It’s amazing,” Kiermaier said. “We’re having the time of our lives right now. And we want to finish this the right way.”
When the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, it was a major surprise.
They had made a shocking and historic worst to first turnaround in the regular season, going from 96 losses the year before to 97 wins, and kept rolling past the White Sox and then the rival Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game ALCS.
When they moved on to face the Phillies, in a way they were just happy to be there. And maybe less so when they got to Philadelphia, had to play in miserable weather and lost in five games.
But this year, the Rays expected to get there thanks to the experience gained last year. The Rays made the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and the first under Cash, taking the eventual AL champion Astros to a fifth and final game in the division series, and that fueled their confidence.
"I definitely think you use the experiences to your advantage," Cash said last week. "And we learned a lot last year, playing five games against Houston, very, very good, took them to the wire. They played better, they deserved to go on. But I think there were things in that, in those experiences and playing in that environment, that led our guys to believe that we can really be right in the thick of things coming into the 2020 season. And they’ve really taken that approach the entire season long, and throughout the postseason."
That was evident as they gathered for spring training in February and carried over through the pandemic-caused shutdown; the delayed, abbreviated and heavily protocol-restricted season; and three postseason series. They had a league-best 40 wins during the season in capturing their third AL East title in 23 seasons, and have now ousted the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros, whose losing record during the season and lingering issues from the cheating scandal made them polarizing opponents.
“It’s absolutely amazing to sit here and think about coming to spring training and the talent we had in that room,” Kiermaier said. “It was just one of those things where you wanted to see us piece it all together and finally take that big leap and know that we can beat any team in baseball. We’ve done that this year, and then some. And that continued (Saturday).”
There’s one more team left, Braves or Dodgers.
First pitch is 8:09, Tuesday night.