Let me start by saying that getting to recap a win-or-go-home playoff game is a new experience for me. So whatever the outcome, how cool is it to be in this position?
With that said, could this game have started out worse?
With one out, Altuve, on a full count, homered over the centerfield fence, Not ideal, but Altuve’s really good. Then, with two outs, Alex Bregman — also very good — walked. Then of course Yordan Alvarez’s ground ball found the gaping weak link on the infield — Yandy Diaz playing third. Diaz threw poorly, Choi couldn’t scoop the bounces, and Astros had runners on second and third. Morton ended the inning with a pop-up, but that 31 pitch first took an inning off his outing and the 1-0 deficit, given Astros pitching, already felt insurmountable.
The Rays then got their chance. Up came Yandy Diaz — the guy whose poor defense we are having to tolerate because of his bat. The outcome? Three called strikes. Next two batters retired without a peep. We needed a shaky Greinke — heck we’ve seen that guy before — to have any hope here. His easy 9 pitch first suggested that we did not get a shaky Greinke. Maybe there’s a lesson: don’t waste your energy with long press conference responses.
The second inning didn’t go much better, with Chirinos walking and Morton continuing to throw a LOT of pitches. No, it’s not too soon to think about the bullpen line up for the rest of the day. Morton isn’t badly wild, but he’s just enough off, and Houston hitters are very patient. No more damage in the second, but Morton’s pitch count was up to 52.
The second started with announcer Bob Costa mentioning that the Rays actually don’t play in Tampa, but in St. Pete. Thanks! Followed by stadium..yadda ...attendance...yadda. But Avisail singled with one out and that thankfully changed the conversation. d’Arnaud got a fastball to the arm to take first. A rally! a rally!
And not just a rally, a lead! Kevin Kiermaier, he of the anemic second half offense, homered to right field, giving the Rays their first lead of the ALDS! Adames followed with a double which would have brought up Diaz to see whether he could run into one against a now shaky Greinke. But surprisingly it was Matt Duffy who stepped up to bat. It was later reported that Diaz had left with a sore foot.
And the reaction:
Of course the Astros lineup does not leave opponents much opportunity to enjoy their lead. Morton hung a curve ball to Altuve, who does not let mistakes go buy. This time it was “merely” a double. He seemed to have advanced to third on a swinging strike on a pitch in the dirt. But d’Arnaud noted that the pitch had actually hit the batter’s foot as he swung, which made it a dead ball. A replay confirmed that claim and Altuve was moved back to second. That alone probably saved a run. A ground out, a strikeout (of Bregman!) and a strikeout of Alvarez ended the inning.
Bottom of the third, and oh goody more attendance talk from the broadcast. Oh, look, they say, fans in the stands! Thankfully that conversation was diverted by a Ji-Man Choi bomb to make the score 4-1.
One small shadow over that inning , though, was watching Tommy Pham take an unproductive swing for strike three and then take the slowest walk you can imagine back to the dugout. We know that Pham has some sort of injury that is keeping him from playing the field, but at that moment he looked like a guy for whom even walking took all his concentration.
Morton was back to pitch the fourth, and we are reminded that the Houston lineup has no easy outs, as Gurriel led off with a single. But Morton gets the next three outs to preserve the lead.
Brandon Lowe decided to get into the home run action in the fourth inning. Ian Malinowski had written earlier today about Lowe’s problem with low inside breaking balls, a hole in his swing exploited by both Verlander and Cole. But Greinke apparently didn’t get that scouting reporting (or more likely simply couldn’t execute the pitch he wanted), because he gave Lowe a pitch in his wheelhouse, and he launched it. #Raysup, 5-1.
With two outs, Willy Adames drew a walk and Greinke was done for the day. Matt Duffy then singled, and the Astros made yet another pitching change, bringing in lefty Wade Miley to pitch to Austin Meadows. But the plan backfired as Meadows hit a long, two RBI double over George Springer’s head. Pham singled through the infield, scoring Meadows from second. Am I hallucinating or are the Rays really leading 8-1?
The inning has gone on so long that the broadcasters are wondering whether that would end Morton’s day. He had thrown 82 pitchers already, nearly a game’s worth. And he was watching his team bat for some 25 minutes (which is great!) Plus, seven runs seemed like a decent cushion. So for very nice reasons Morton’s day might have ended. But in fact he was back out to pitch the fifth, facing the very tough top of the Astros order. And he responded with his first one-two-three inning, with no full counts. Really his most dominant of the game. Maybe having a 25 minute break and a seven run lead can add a little zip to the fastball. That was indeed his last inning. His final line: Five innings, three hits, one run, two walks, and nine strikeouts.
The biggest question for the remainder of the game would be lining up the Rays bullpen to keep this game from getting close. Cash went first to Chaz Roe; he would be facing mostly righties this innings, although he’d also have to get past lefty Yordan Alvarez. He started with a lead off single to Bregman, and Alvarez, who had not looked very good this series, followed with a double. Not ideal!! Gurriel then hit a grounder but it took some big bounces and got through the middle of the infield to score two runs, and we were at 8-3.
Two outs later, and Roe was replaced by Brendan McKay to face the left-handed Josh Reddick. I’ll be honest, while McKay may well have a great future, he has had trouble getting outs reliably in recent appearances, and I am not thrilled to see him. And in response, the Astros went to their bench to get a right-handed pinch hitter, so the match up advantage was gone. But I need not have worried. McKay got two strikes and then induced a harmless pop fly. Damage limited.
Just as nice as limiting damage is getting those runs back. Willy Adames was not impressed with Wade Miley’s change-up, making it 9-3 Rays:
*pause*— Josh Tolentino (@JCTSports) October 7, 2019
After every home run the #Rays hit this year, Willy Adames always runs out and removes his teammate's helmet before the entire team celebrates in the dugout. He changed it up after his solo dinger and gave Cash a present. pic.twitter.com/r3ZHFhnDqp
The Rays went with Oliver Drake to preserve the six-run lead in the seventh inning and he was perfect.
In the bottom of the seventh, Choi’s at-bat was greeted with a loud “Ji-Man Choi” chant - very nice! The Rays added yet another run in that inning; Garcia reach on an error, moved to third on a single and scored on Travis d’Arnaud’s sacrifice fly. 10-3 after seven innings and I’m starting to think I may get to use my Tuesday game tickets after all.
A strong eighth from Oliver Drake — friends, this is the fellow whose previous claim to fame was having been traded or DFA’d by a record number of teams before hanging on with the Rays, getting six important outs in a win-or-go-home playoff game! — and then on to Colin Poche in the ninth (didn’t think we’d get Pagan with a seven run lead, did you?)
Special kudos to Charlie Morton for an imperfect performance that is a great illustration of what is meant when we talk about “leaving it all on the field,” but this was a true team win. A well rounded offense, in which every player (except Diaz who left early) contributed. A lively crowd, a playoff atmosphere.
It doesn’t get better than this.
See y’all tomorrow!