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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Tampa Bay Rays Punish Houston Astros In Game 7, Advance To World Series

The Rays handed the Astros a harsher punishment than Rob Manfred — banning their players from participating in the 2020 World Series.

In a fitting twist of irony, the team with the third-lowest payroll in baseball handed the ball to its highest-paid player/largest free-agent expenditure — and let him do the rest.

Ex-Astro Charlie Morton lived up to his billing as a big-game pitcher once again, hurling 5 2/3 efficient innings of shutout ball, as Tampa avoided collapse and advanced to the World Series with a 4-2 victory over Houston in decisive Game 7 on Saturday night at Petco Park.

Morton, 36, who signed a two-year, $30 million deal in 2019, has won all four of his winner-take-all starts. He allowed only three baserunners, but was lifted by Kevin Cash having thrown only 66 pitches.

The potentially controversial move worked, with Nick Anderson inducing a groundout from Michael Brantley to strand a pair in the sixth.

Randy Arozarena connected for his MLB-leading seventh homer of the posteason – a two-run shot in the first – to give the Rays an early lead, which Morton and Co. wouldn’t relinquish. Mike Zunino added a 430-foot solo homer in the second, and a sacrifice fly in the sixth.

The Astros got within two on Carlos Correa’s two-run single with two outs in the eighth. But Pete Fairbanks avoided further trouble when he struck out Alex Bregman with a 100 mph fastball to end the frame with two on. Fairbanks also recorded the final three outs in the ninth to send the Rays back to the World Series for the first time since 2008.

Despite payroll limitations from ownership, Tampa built a versatile roster through a combination of smarts and scouting. Some came in trades, others through the draft. Many – Arozarena perhaps most of all – were unknowns. The Rays rolled to the AL East title with a 40-20 record. They dispatched of the Blue Jays in two games before needing the maximum five to eliminate the hated Yankees.

They jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the ALCS before it became, 3-1, 3-2, and then 3-3. But as far as historic collapses are concerned, the 2004 Yankees still stand alone.

Houston nearly pulled off the impossible, reaching the World Series with a losing record (29-31). The Astros were finally exposed for cheating to win the 2017 Fall Classic in the offseason, publicly outed by Mike Fiers.

MLB suspended Jeff Ludnow and AJ Hinch for the season., and both were subsequently fired by the Astros. Houston was also docked four draft picks and $5 million. But no players were suspended for their illegal trash-can banging, with Manfred wanting to avoid a battle with the Players’ Association. Owner Jim Crane failed to show remorse for his team’s wrongdoing. It was a bad look for a bad culture.

The Astros lost Gerrit Cole in free agency and Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery. But they persevered under the leadership of James Click and beloved skipper Dusty Baker. The team’s defiant core rose to the occasion, taking advantage of the expanded postseason.

Jose Altuve overcame the yips to deliver big hits in October. Lefty Framber Valdez, signed by Ludnow for $10,000 in 2015, emerged as the ace of the staff. A walk-off homer by Correa forced Game 7. An Astros-Dodgers rematch was possible. But Lance McCullers Jr. misplaced a heater to Arozarena, and Houston’s hitters couldn’t solve Morton.

Joe Kelly got his shot at the Astros this year. America may get its shot to boo them in 2021 – vaccine pending.

Either way, they aren’t playing in 2020 any longer. The Rays made sure of that.

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