SAN DIEGO (AP) - With three consecutive losses in the AL Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Rays are on the brink of an extremely regrettable bit of baseball history.
Unlike the 2004 New York Yankees, the Rays still have a chance to avoid a flop that will follow them forever.
Tampa Bay and Houston will play Game 7 at Petco Park on Saturday after the Astros incredibly stretched the ALCS to the limit with a 7-4 victory Friday night.
Although it certainly didn’t feel that way when Houston turned a double play to end Game 6, the Rays are still one win away from their franchise’s second trip to the World Series, just as they were on Wednesday when they had a 3-0 series lead.
After a Game 6 defeat filled with pitching woes and defensive mistakes that would have seemed improbable just three days ago for the AL’s winningest regular season team, the Rays are also one loss away from matching the worst playoff collapse in 116 years of postseason baseball.
“I’ve seen these guys play such clean baseball over and over this year,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We have a track record of it, and we bet we’re going to get back to playing really clean, efficient baseball.”
The teetering Rays need any sort of steadiness after their first three-game losing streak since Sept. 7-10, and they should get it when they begin Game 7 with 36-year-old Charlie Morton on the mound. Morton pitched two seasons and won a World Series ring with the Astros before joining Tampa Bay last year.
Morton pitched the final four innings of Houston’s Game 7 World Series victory over the Dodgers three years ago. That game was started for Houston by Lance McCullers Jr., who will start again for the Astros in San Diego on Saturday.
Although it’s getting increasing competition from momentum and the weight of history, plain old offense remains the Rays’ biggest problem.
Aside from Manuel Margot’s two homers in Game 6 after Houston already had a big lead, the worst-hitting team left in the playoffs continues to sink at the plate. After going an ordinary 5 for 21 with runners in scoring position during their three wins over Houston, the Rays have just 10 runs and 20 hits in their three losses while batting 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position.
Mike Zunino perhaps exemplified the whole team’s feelings when he broke his bat over his knee in the fifth inning after Framber Valdez struck him out on three pitches.
Tampa Bay made up for an ordinary offense throughout the season with excellent pitching and defense, but the Rays stumbled in both aspects in Game 6.
The precision that has come to define the Rays - in their fielding, their mound work and their managerial decisions - is in disarray.
Former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell only made it into the fifth inning before he got an early hook from Cash. Sturdy reliever Diego Castillo took over and promptly allowed the first postseason runs of his career.
During that Astros rally, left fielder Brandon Lowe made a throw that went neither to the cutoff man, nor to second base. Instead, it merely allowed George Springer to score Houston’s third run much more easily than he should have.
Zunino even had three passed balls, including one that put José Altuve in position to score in the seventh.
The Tampa Bay bullpen that has been dominant throughout October - the “stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour,” as Cash memorably described them in September - allowed both of its inherited runners to score in Game 6 and went on to give up five more runs.
Cash also had to use five relievers just to finish the game, meaning his once-rested bullpen got plenty of work. But Cash managed not to use Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks or Ryan Thompson, which means he’ll still have plenty of quality options for Game 7 after Morton. Even starter Tyler Glasnow, who threw 96 pitches in a Game 4 defeat on Wednesday, could be available.
Tampa Bay’s skid has arrived at a potentially disastrous time. The 2004 Yankees and these Rays are the only teams in baseball history even to go to Game 7 after holding a 3-0 series lead.
Those powerhouse Yankees were villains to much of the sports world, and many neutral fans cheered when the Boston Red Sox rallied from that 0-3 deficit and made a cathartic run to their first World Series title in 86 years.
These Rays seem like the good guys to most of baseball against the Astros, whose involvement in a sign-stealing scandal was fully revealed last offseason.
Good guys or not, Tampa Bay has only one chance left to do what seemed inevitable merely three days ago.
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