SAN DIEGO — The way the Tampa Bay Rays see it, they’re America’s Team now.
They eliminate the powerful and rich New York Yankees one day, partying through the night, and two days later, they took a huge first step in making sure the Houston Astros don’t get a return trip to the World Series, winning 2-1 Sunday in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
It was one year and a day since these teams last saw one another when the Astros won the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series, sending the Rays home and leaving them with a long, bitter memory — particularly after the Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal was exposed after the season.
“Obviously,’’ Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said, “we all kind of said what we thought about that situation. It is what it is. Nobody has forgotten what they have done or chose to do in years past, and they have to live with that.
“But we want to end their season this year, doing everything our way, and beating them at our game.’’
Well, the Rays certainly did that with their drastic shifts, their four-man outfield, and, oh, that unbelievable bullpen.
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Diego Castillo (63) reacts after getting out of the eighth inning against the Houston Astros. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)
The Rays simply hung around early in the game, turned the game over to the bullpen after five innings, and the Astros’ offense was shut down the rest of the night.
The Astros’ only real threat was in the eighth inning when they loaded the bases off veteran Aaron Loup on the help of a walk and hit batsman, but Diego Castillo entered the game and, on one pitch, induced a double play from Yuli Gurriel, extending his misery.
Just like you draw it up pic.twitter.com/aKSJc7ibDD
Gurriel is hitting just .080 (2-for-25) this postseason without an extra-base hit, which is coming off a dreadful September in which he hit .154 with only three extra-base hits.
“Yuli’s my first baseman,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You’re not going to find it on the bench. You’re going to find it playing. I’m not a fair-weather coach.’’
It’s not as if the Rays had a lethal attack of their own, mustering only four hits and two runs in six innings off Astros starter Framber Valdez, but they simply sat back and watched their pitching staff work its magic.
The Astros had a 1-0 lead two batters into the game on Jose Altuve’s homer. It was his 16th career postseason homer, the most by any second baseman in history, and just four behind Hall of Famer Derek Jeter’s record 20 for middle infielders.
But that was it.
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Oh, they had their chances, again and again off Rays ace Blake Snell, but he escaped jam after jam, departing after throwing 105 pitches over five innings. The bullpen did the rest, and the Astros managed only one hit after the Alex Bregman’s leadoff single in the fourth inning.
“That lineup is tough,’’ Snell said. “They don’t give it at all. Once they get on you, blood in the water, and they’re a bunch of sharks.''
The Rays tied the game in the fourth inning on Randy Arozarena’s home run. He became just the fifth rookie to hit four or more homers in a single postseason. Evan Longoria has the rookie record of six homers set in 2008, when the Rays won the American League pennant.
"He’s having a lot of fun right now,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Arozarena, “and we’re having a lot of fun with everything that he’s doing on and off the field. High-energy guy that really likes to play, and he’s showing it to the world.’’
The Rays took the lead for good in the fifth inning on No. 9 hitter Mike Zunino’s two-out single, and once it became a battle of the bullpens, the Astros had no chance.
“It’s completely different than when we faced [division rival] Oakland,’’ Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We had seen them. But with Rays, not seeing them for a year, we had to rely on video. We’ve got to try to make them throw the ball in the middle of the plate in order for us to swing at it.’’
Sorry, the Rays instead worked the corners, changed speeds, used all four quadrants of the strike zone, and when they needed, simply reared back and threw the fastball past them.
It may have been just one game in this best-of-seven series, but the way the Rays are feeling, knowing they have lost just one series since Aug. 4, winning 60 consecutive games when having a lead after seven innings, they can’t help but believe their next plane trip is to Arlington, Texas, for the World Series.
“I think that we’re better this year than we were last year,’’ said Kiermaier, who produced two doubles out of the No. 8 spot. “I know they have a lot of talent over there still, but they don’t have Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander, and we definitely like that.’’
In the words of Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe: “We have a bigger plan than just getting to the ALCS. This is just another team in our way of reaching our ultimate goal.’’
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