Sixteen years ago in Boston, with his team up three games to none in the American League Championship Series and leading 4-3 in the potential series-clinching Game 4, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera issued a costly leadoff walk to Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park. It is an all too painful memory for Yankee fans what happened next, after Millar was replaced by pinch runner Dave Roberts at first base.
Rivera, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was as close to a sure thing once he took the mound in any given situation, attempted to pick off Roberts three times before the Red Sox bench player stole second with Bill Mueller at the plate. Two pitches later, Mueller scorched a grounder up the middle, driving in Roberts, and forever shifting the series momentum in Boston’s favor.
The Red Sox, of course, came back to win Game 4 and Game 5 at Fenway in dramatic fashion, and then took Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium to advance to the World Series and leave Rivera, Derek Jeter and the rest of the Yankees wallowing in misery. The 2020 Tampa Bay Rays hope to avoid a similar scenario, and not become the second team in baseball history — after those 2004 Yankees — to lose a playoff series after being up 3-0.
The Houston Astros have other designs.
“There is definitely a lot of pressure in any Game Seven and I think there’s a lot more on the Rays,” said Johnny Damon, a member of that ‘04 Red Sox team that eventually broke an 86-year World Series drought, when Boston swept the Cardinals in the ‘04 Fall Classic. “Houston had to go in (to the ALCS) saying ‘we have nothing to lose.’ They are going to feel really good tonight.”
This current ALCS has several tantalizing storylines leading up to the Game 7 start at neutral Petco Park in San Diego. During this pandemic-shortened season, the Astros have carried the added burden of universal scorn outside of Houston in the wake of a Major League Baseball report released in January which determined the 2017 Astros team — which featured many of the players on the current Astros roster — cheated during their World Series championship run, using an illegal, electronic sign-stealing scheme.
Rays starter Charlie Morton, who will take the ball for Tampa Bay in the winner-takes-all Game 7 Saturday night, was a member of the now-tainted 2017 Astros team, and he won both Game 7 of the ‘17 ALCS and World Series, beating the Yankees and Dodgers, respectively.
For the 2004 Yankees, their troubles in the ALCS Game 7 began shortly after starter Kevin Brown took the Stadium mound. Damon singled to lead off the game and stole second. Although Damon was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a Manny Ramirez single to left field, teammate David Ortiz followed Ramirez’s at-bat with a two-run home run to draw first blood.
It got worse for the Yankees in the top of the second inning. Brown loaded the bases with one out only to then leave the game, replaced by right-hander Javier Vazquez. The first batter Vazquez faced was Damon. The Boston center fielder took the first pitch and blasted it into the right field stands.
“When they changed pitchers, I was only thinking that we need to at least get one run,” said Damon. “It just happened to be an amazing grand slam.”
Yankees manager Joe Torre’s team never recovered, and watched their ancient rivals celebrate on the same enemy turf where a year earlier, Aaron Boone had kept the curse alive when he belted an extra-inning home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to oust the Red Sox.
The 2020 Rays put a stranglehold on the Astros after winning the first three games of the ALCS, but Houston has roared back to life. Catcher Martin Maldonado is one of the few Astros who has had success against Morton, batting a career .538 (7-for-13) against the Rays right-hander. Houston will counter with starter Lance McCullers Jr.
“We’ve just got to bounce back,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after the ALCS was tied at three games apiece. “This isn’t the scenario that we wanted leading up 3-0. But this is a resilient group. We’re going to show up (for Game 7) and do everything we can, like we always do, to find a way to win and pick each other up.
“The momentum, there’s no doubt the momentum has shifted. But I would bet on this team being very available and capable of bouncing back.”
If they don’t rebound, the Rays will be in lonely company with the 2004 Yankees.