Gregory Bull/Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — They won it the New Fashioned Way, these Tampa Bay Rays. In their own inimitable style, with their own blueprints. Proprietary information all the way.
Score one for depth and creativity, for stubbornness and ingenuity. Two consecutive games, one of their top starters was chucking a shutout midgame, and it didn’t matter. He got the hook anyway. It backfired the first time, worked the second. These Rays worship at the altar of computer simulations and process, human soul be damned.
They nearly blew this ALCS, but look who’s still standing. Tampa Bay laid a 4-2 Game 7 drilling on the Houston Astros to advance to just the second World Series in franchise history. And afterward, you bet they partied like it was 2008—well, as much as you can in 2020.
“There’s confetti, silly string—we’ve tried to embrace it for what it’s worth,” Rays catcher Michael Zunino said, describing the MLB-mandated no-alcohol, mask-wearing, be-careful clubhouse celebration. “But I’ll tell you, man, there’s nothing better than popping [Champagne] bottles, wearing goggles and it seeping in there.
“There’s one time we get to do that, and that’s if we win the World Series. And guys have that in mind.”
The chorus you hear in the background? It’s baseball’s version of the Munchkins, singing lustily, from coast to coast: Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead! Commissioner Rob Manfred will not have to present the World Series trophy to the Houston Astros through gritted teeth and nightmare memories.
Gregory Bull/Associated Press
Disgraced last winter when an MLB investigation revealed they cheated via illegal video technology in winning the World Series title in 2017, the Astros narrowly missed in their reach for at least a touch of redemption. Oh, they came so close.
“We hoped that they had taken Charlie Morton out too soon because he had everything working,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “He was throwing strikes with everything. Yeah, it’s frustrating.”
Tampa Bay was on the verge of a sweep, and then someone hit the “tumble dry low” button. Suddenly, there the Rays were, bouncing around in need of an anti-static sheet. Asked about what time he got to bed Friday night after losing Game 6, Rays manager Kevin Cash said he didn’t.
“I don’t know if I went to bed,” Cash said. “There was a lot of anxiety. Believe me, we’ve all watched Four Days in October. I didn’t want to see it again.”
The uneasiness dissipated in the first inning as soon as ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena blasted a two-run home run, his seventh of the postseason. Behind Arozarena’s bat—his seven homers are a rookie postseason record—and starter Charlie Morton’s determination, nobody would be producing a 30 for 30 sequel to the 2004 Boston Red Sox’s legendary comeback.
Ashley Landis/Associated Press
Arozarena, 25, is the perfect Ray: He was acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals over the winter for a solid pitching prospect, but it wasn’t the kind of deal that makes national headlines. The Rays loved his bat, though, and thought that if they plugged him into just the right scenarios, he could play a big role on their winning team.
He had only 19 total games on his resume at the time and was best-known as the bench player who live-streamed what was supposed to be a private clubhouse pep talk from St. Louis manager Mike Shildt during a playoff series with the Atlanta Braves. Shildt used some salty language, the organization was embarrassed and a chastened Arozarena quickly apologized.
This autumn, well, you might say it’s a little different.
“Everybody is just in awe of him every time he steps in the box,” Zunino said earlier this week. “He’s done everything you could possibly do to spark a lineup. …
“The sky is the limit with him. Heck, we’ve seen him hit balls out to right field. He pulls them into the upper deck. It’s amazing what he can do. And he does it against the best arms in the game.”
It’s amazing what these Rays can do too. In the past three weeks, they have eliminated MLB’s richest payroll, the $109 million New York Yankees, and the fourth-highest payroll, the $82.5 million Houston Astros. Tampa Bay, of course, ranks 28th in the majors at $28 million (only the Pittsburgh Pirates, $25 million, and Baltimore Orioles, $23 million, are more thrifty).
So it’s ironic that the Rays’ manager is named for something the organization lacks: Cash.
But what they lack in dough, they more than make up for in moxie. Morton was cruising in Game 7, hurling a two-hit shutout and leading 3-0 with two on and two out in the sixth when Cash came with the hook. Morton hadn’t allowed a hit since the first inning until Jose Altuve’s bleeder to third base, which put runners on first and third. He had thrown only 66 pitches and barely had seemed to break a sweat.
Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja
Charlie Morton, Filthy 80mph Curveball. 😷 https://t.co/ccGU5hF9dV
But the Rays’ script is the script.
“Without getting too in depth, it was pretty simple,” Cash said. “Third time through [the Astros’ batting order], we value that. We value our process. Michael Brantley is as talented a hitter as anyone in baseball, and if you give him too many looks, he’s going to get you.”
Cash also explained, with Brantley due up and two on, it was as high leverage of a situation as there had been, and quite possibly it could have been the highest-leverage situation of the game.
“No discredit to anybody,” Cash said. “It’s just what we do.”
What they also do is collect players who will play ball according to these numbers-driven blueprints.
“I always use the phrase ‘buy-in,'” Cash said. “The players appreciate what makes us good, from top to bottom. I’m saying front office, scouts, players, development and, especially, the players. We have a tremendous staff that gives quality messages, and we do our best to put players in a position to succeed.
“We’re not a team built on superstar after superstar. We’re a team that maximizes opportunity and tries to get matchups to win games, and we did that really well this year.”
Ashley Landis/Associated Press
They did it well enough that they are headed to Texas for Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night. They will face the winner of Sunday evening’s Game 7 of the NLCS between Atlanta and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And what this country is about to see is a team that runs the bases as if chasing a dream, plays defense as gracefully as a school of ballerinas and squeezes just enough offense together the way your parents once squeezed each paycheck just enough to make ends meet.
It will see a pitching staff that brings high heat with a variety of sharp curves, heavy sinkers and knee-buckling change-ups. The bullpen is deep and versatile, from Diego Castilla to Nick Anderson to Pete Fairbanks to Jose Alvarado.
It’s lean (Alvarado lost 21 pounds when he changed his diet during an extended shutdown because of a shoulder issue this year), mean (Anderson fanned 26 of 58 batters faced this year) and green (Fairbanks, a rookie, studied mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri and, according to the Rays’ media guide, scored a 34 out of a possible 36 points on his ACT and, as a backup plan if baseball fell through, hoped to work for Boeing designing military aircraft).
They beat an Astros team that had the fewest strikeouts in the American League this year yet flashed a ton of home run power. Tampa Bay pitching harnessed that.
And for Houston, a year that started with vitriol ends with a whimper. You can still hear echoes players from other teams stepping up to take whacks at them as if swinging at a pinata this spring: The Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant (“They’re only doing this apology because they got caught. … It’s a disgrace to the game”), the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (“Everyone knows they stole the ring from us”) and Trevor Bauer (“They are hypocrites. They are cheaters. They’ve stolen from a lot of other people and the game itself was completely unfair”).
As the Astros packed for the winter, Morton, who was teammates with those on the ’17 Houston team, was gracious in victory.
“I just hope that people don’t assume the worst of everyone,” Morton said. “They did a heck of a job this year. I didn’t pay too much attention to what they were doing in the regular season. But to see them in that Twins series, to see them in that A’s series and then here, we have a really tough pitching staff.
“And the way they were swinging the bats in Game 1-3, our guys were talking in the dugout, these guys are good. They’re tough. Professional hitters. …
“For me, they showed a lot this postseason.”
So the Astros quietly checked out of this October tournament following their fourth consecutive ALCS appearance, and it may be the last we hear from them for a while. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick all are eligible for free agency this winter. Lance McCullers Jr., Carlos Correa, Aledmys Diaz and injured closer Roberto Osuna all are eligible for arbitration.
“We’ve got a tough winter coming up,” said Baker, whose 2021 option to manage the Astros was picked up by the club earlier this season. “I’m hoping they get most of these guys signed here because we could be good for a while.”
Disappointed in defeat, he noted how hard his team fought this week.
Gregory Bull/Associated Press
So, too, did Carlos Correa, who said that it was the games this year that provided them a shelter from the storm.
“I mean, when we took the field, it was our playground,” Correa said. “We zoned out of the outside world. We were going out and performing for our teammates and winning ballgames.
“It was a special year after everything. It’s the most fun we ever had.”
But now, after playing in two of the past four Fall Classics, the Astros will watch as Tampa Bay moves along in what becomes a new World Series order.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter to talk baseball.