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With ALCS Win, Rays Shift Balance Of Power In The American League



SAN DIEGO—For the last four years, American League supremacy has belonged to the Astros.

They won more games (340) than any other AL team in that time, made the ALCS four straight times, won one World Series and reached another. Those gains may have been ill-gotten, and were indisputably assisted by baseball’s largest cheating scandal in nearly a century, but the banners remain.

On a cool, damp Saturday evening at Petco Park, that era met its likely end, and the torch was passed to the heir apparent.

Charlie Morton pitched 5.2 scoreless innings, Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino homered and the Rays beat the Astros 4-2 in the decisive Game 7 of the ALCS, sending Tampa Bay to the World Series for the second time in franchise history.

The Rays avoided becoming the second team in major league history to blow a 3-0 series lead. They now await the winner of the NLCS between the Braves and Dodgers.

“Believe me, we’ve all watched ‘Four Days in October,' ” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, referring to the documentary about the 2004 Red Sox overcoming their 3-0 ALCS deficit. “I didn’t want to see it again.”

For the Rays, the win simultaneously marks the culmination of their rise and the start of their projected reign as the team to beat in the AL. They've steadily climbed for years, going from 68 wins in 2016 to 80 wins in 2017 to 90 wins in 2018 to 96 wins in 2019, capped by posting the American League’s best record this season. All the while, they built the game’s No. 1 farm system, striking the balance of winning in the present without sacrificing the future that all teams aspire to, but few actually achieve.

The end result is a franchise in an enviable position: one that had the American League’s best record, is going to the World Series and owns the game’s No. 1 farm system—a blend of present accomplishment and future potential unmatched by any other team.

“We had a goal in mind and that was getting to this point and winning from this point on, because we just know we have the personnel to do it,” said center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays’ longest-tenured player. “Just such a fun time, a great time, to be a Tampa Bay Ray.”

By no means is long-term dominance guaranteed. The Rays are the sixth team to reach the World Series the same year they had the No. 1 farm system. The others are the 2013 Cardinals, 2008 Rays, 1999 Braves, 1995 Braves and 1993 Blue Jays. Only one of those teams—the 1995 Braves—returned to the World Series within seven years of that accomplishment.

But that’s a future concern. For now, the Rays are heading to the World Series, and their trade acquisitions are the primary reason why.

Arozarena, acquired form the Cardinals last offseason, put the Rays up immediately with a two-run homer in the first inning to continue his torrid postseason. It was his seventh home run of the playoffs, a new rookie record for home runs in the postseason, and capped a stirring performance that earned him the ALCS MVP award.

Zunino, acquired from the Mariners before the 2019 season, launched a solo homer into the second deck in the second inning and added a sacrifice fly in the sixth, insurance runs that proved critical in holding off an Astros comeback attempt.

And after Cash raised eyebrows by pulling Morton with a shutout going in the sixth inning, relievers Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks—trade acquisitions from the Marlins and Rangers, respectively, at least year’s trade deadline—took it home with the final 3.1 innings of relief.

In all, 9 of the 13 players who appeared for the Rays in the clincher were acquired via trade.

“It’s a credit to so many people,” Cash said. “Right at the top with (general manager) Erik Neander and his baseball ops group that recognizes really talented players. You gotta give up good players sometimes to get talented players, but they are really special in how they can build a roster and make sure that every piece fits.”

Morton, the lone free agent signing who appeared for the Rays in the clincher, showed again he was worth their rare free agent expenditure. He cruised through 5.2 scoreless innings in only 66 pitches and picked up the win, solidifying his standing as one of baseball’s best big-game pitchers.

Morton improved to 4-0, 0.46 in four career winner-take-all postseason games. He was already the only pitcher in MLB history to win three of them, and now has four.

Overall, it was his fifth career win in a potential elimination game, also the most in MLB history.

“I guess after the first couple when I actually realized I could do it, then it became something I started to kind of look forward to a little bit,” Morton said.

“I’ve dealt with doubt my entire career. I’ve dealt with a lack of belief in myself and so for organizations to give me the ball in big situations, that was the biggest thing for me. The belief that an organization would have to give the ball to me.”

The Astros, facing the looming free agency of George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick this winter—and Zack Greinke, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. after next season—gave it one last gasp with their current group.

McCullers lasted only 3.2 innings after surrendering Arozarena’s two-run homer and Zunino’s solo shot, but the Astros bullpen kept the Rays from running away and bought their offense time.

They took advantage in the eighth, loading the bases and scoring a pair on a two-run single by Correa to cut their deficit to 4-2. Just as the Astros had battled back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a game 7, they were battling late to keep their season—and, by default, their hopes of a third World Series appearance in four years—intact.

But with the tying runs on base, Fairbanks blew a 100 mph fastball by Alex Bregman for the third out to end the threat. In the ninth, after Yuli Gurriel singled with one out to bring the tying run to the plate, Fairbanks struck out Josh Reddick on a 99 mph fastball and got Aledmys Diaz to fly out to right, sending the Rays to the World Series for the first time since 2008.

“I think it sums up our team,” Zunino said. “You go up 3-0, whether we get complacent, whether we get a little comfortable, whether we start to put some pressure on ourselves to try to end it quicker, we took ourselves out of our game. Guys came back today and there was a real sense of calm. It really felt how the clubhouse usually feels, and these guys responded.”

For the Astros, the loss does not completely signal the end of their run as a contender. They still have Greinke, Correa and McCullers for one more year, Bregman and Jose Altuve are signed long term and the emergence of Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier gives them the making, along with Jose Urquidy, of a young, homegrown rotation they can build around.

But when Manny Margot squeezed the final out in shallow right field, it solidified that the balance of power in the American League has shifted.

Now, it’s the Rays time.

“We’re dangerous, we know that,” Kiermaier said, “and we plan on continuing that trend.”

Hunter Renfroe Ezrashawgetty

Highlight-Reel Defense Puts Rays On Brink Of World Series

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