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Highlight-Reel Defense Puts Rays On Brink Of World Series



SAN DIEGO—Rays manager Kevin Cash stood near the bottom of the steps in the first-base dugout at Petco Park, watching it all unfold before him. At a certain point, even he was struck with a tinge of disbelief.

He turned to his pitching coach Kyle Snyder and, simply, exchanged a look of amazement.

Just like everyone else, he was in awe of his team’s defense.

“The amount of plays that were made, the combination of yesterday and today defensively,” Cash said, “you scratch your head at how talented and how athletic these guys are to be in the right spot and complete plays.”

The Rays continued their series-long defensive clinic in a 5-2 win over the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night. The Rays lead the series 3-0 and are one win away from their second World Series appearance in franchise history.

At this point, the list of Rays who haven’t made a highlight-reel defensive play is shorter than the ones who have.

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier made a leaping catch at the wall to rob Alex Bregman of extra bases in the first inning and raced to make a diving catch on Carlos Correa’s sinking liner in the third. Shortstop Willy Adames made his latest standout play with a backhanded stop and throw from deep in the hole to get the speedy Jose Altuve at first. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe, who entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth, ended the seventh with a diving catch in right field to rob George Springer of extra bases. In the eighth, he made a sliding catch to prevent Kyle Tucker’s soft fly from falling in with the bases loaded.

Even the pitchers got in on the action. Reliever John Curtiss made a diving play off the mound when he jumped to snag a high chopper off the bat of Yuli Gurriel, quickly got to one knee and fired a bullet to first base, which Yandy Diaz adeptly snagged while avoiding a collision with the oncoming Gurriel.

That all came a day after Manny Margot made the signature catch of the postseason, Joey Wendle made a pair of diving stops at third base, Adames made a pair of dazzling plays at shortstop and Ji-Man Choi performed his best Gumby impersonation, stretching remarkable lengths at first base.

The Astros have scored five runs in three games against the Rays. They’ve lost countless more on account of the Rays defensive shifts and standout plays.

Conservatively, they lost three in Game 3—one on each of Renfroe’s catches and another on Kiermaier’s second catch—which, naturally, turned out to be the Rays’ margin of victory.

“They’re just outplaying us right now,” Correa said. “Their defensive plays are the difference of this series. They’re making huge plays in big spots, and that’s why their ahead right now."

That, for the record, is by design. The Rays spent considerable resources building a pitching staff that had the second-lowest ERA in the American League this season and continue to invest heavily in arms. Two of their three highest-paid players are pitchers. They’ve used seven of their last 10 first-round picks on pitchers.

In order to support that pitching pipeline, they’ve gone out of their way to acquire impact defenders, including the defensively-renowned Margot and Renfroe in trades last offseason.

“Taking a run away is just as valuable as driving one in,” Kiermaier said. “I guess I’m biased towards that because defense is my bread and butter, but it is. It’s valued so much in the game today.

“Our front office, they understand our formula. If you’re going to sit here and bring in all these great pitchers, acquire guys through the minor leagues and through trades, you’ve gotta have the proper guys to play behind them. And we have the perfect roster for just that.”

Contrast that with the Astros. Specifically, Altuve.

The veteran second baseman’s descent began in Game 2 when he short-hopped a throw from shallow right field for an error on what should have been the final out of the first inning. Two pitches later, Margot made him and the Astros pay with a three-run homer to center field.

Altuve short-hopped another throw in the third inning. It ended up not hurting the Astros, but from then on, Correa took Altuve’s place in shallow right field when the team shifted.

Any thought it was a one-game blip was erased in the sixth inning of Game 3. Altuve cleanly fielded a tailor-made double play ball, looked at Correa, froze for a half-second and short-armed a one-hopper into left field.

The error gave the Rays two on and none out as opposed to none on with two out, and their opportunistic lineup pounced. The Rays sent 11 men to the plate and scored five runs in the inning, a deficit from which the Astros never recovered.

The error that opened the floodgates was Altuve’s fourth throwing error of the postseason, after he didn’t make a single one the entire regular season.

“I don’t know,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said when asked if Altuve has the yips. “I really don’t know. It’s tough to see this happening to such a great player and such a great guy. You can go into a defensive slump just as you can an offensive slump, and then the physical turns mental. We certainly have to get past this.”

The Astros don’t have much time. Only one team in baseball history, the 2004 Red Sox, has come back from a 3-0 deficit. They’ve been done in by defensive mistakes, while the Rays have yet to make one.

Given defense is what the Rays are built for, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

“It’s fun playing next to these guys because we all take pride in our defense,” Kiermaier said. “….we feed off each other, and games like tonight are a perfect example of just that.”

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