The Tampa Bay Rays clinched the American League pennant with a win over the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS on Saturday night (TB 4, HOU 2). Tampa led the series 3-0, but the Astros forced Game 7 with wins in Games 4, 5, and 6. The 2004 Red Sox can pop the champagne. They are still the only team in MLB history to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.
Charlie Morton shut down his former team in Game 7, holding the Astros scoreless through 5 2/3 innings before giving way to the bullpen. Home runs from Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino gave Tampa an early cushion they were able to nurse the rest of the way. The Astros brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, but ultimately it was too little, too late.
The Astros have now seen their season end in heartbreaking fashion in Game 7 in back-to-back years. Last season the Nationals mounted a late-inning comeback to win Game 7 of the World Series. This season Houston's attempted comeback from a 3-0 series deficit fell short.
Here are takeaways from the Rays' Game 7 win.
Arozarena homered again
Randy Arozarena is Atlas. His teammates are giving him little help offensively, so he just keeps socking huge dingers. Arozarena opened the scoring in Game 7 with a two-run home run in the first inning. It was his seventh home run in 14 games this postseason.
The homer came on a fastball out over the plate and it's sort of amazing teams are still throwing Arozarena heaters. According to YES Network researcher James Smyth, Arozarena is 10 for 20 with a triple and five homers against fastballs this postseason (.500 batting average and 1.350 slugging percentage). That means he's 11 for 32 with three doubles and two homers against everything else (.344 and .625). That's still great! But not as great as his numbers against fastballs. Arozarena's seven home runs are the most ever by a rookie in a single postseason, breaking a tie with former Ray Evan Longoria (2008). Only three players ever have hit more homers in a single postseason:
- Barry Bonds, 2002 Giants: 8 HR
- Carlos Beltran, 2004 Astros: 8 HR
- Nelson Cruz, 2011 Rangers: 8 HR
- Several tied with 7 HR, including Arozarena
Furthermore, Arozarena now has 21 hits in the postseason, tying him with Yuli Gurriel (2017) for the second most by a rookie in a single postseason. Derek Jeter had 22 hits as a rookie in the 1996 postseason. Arozarena went 8 for 28 (.286) with four home runs in the series.
Morton dominated his former team
For the first time in MLB history, two players who pitched as teammates in one winner-take-all game faced each other as opposing starters in another winner-take-all game. Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. pitched against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, then opposed each other in Game 7 of the 2020 ALCS. Morton is only the sixth pitcher ever to face his former team in a winner-take-all postseason game. The list:
- Charlie Morton, Rays: 2020 ALCS vs. Astros
- CC Sabathia, Yankees: 2017 ALDS vs. Cleveland
- Roger Clemens, Yankees: 2003 ALCS vs. Red Sox
- Pete Vuckovich, Brewers: 1982 World Series vs. Cardinals
- Jerry Reuss, Dodgers: 1981 NLDS vs. Astros
- Lew Burdette, Braves: 1957 and 1958 World Series vs. Yankees
Morton shoved against his former teammates in Game 7. His fastball averaged 95.3 mph, his highest average velocity in a start since last year's Wild Card Game, and his pitch count by inning was beautiful: 11, 12, 7 13, 6, 17. He was dominant and efficient, and at one point he retired 14 straight Astros. Morton has allowed no more than one earned run in each of his last five postseason starts, the second-longest streak in history (Curt Schilling had six straight).
Houston never got much of anything going against the righty. Morton was already the only pitcher in baseball history to earn a win in three winner-take-all postseason games (2017 ALCS Game 7, 2017 World Series Game 7, and 2019 AL Wild Card Game). Now he has a fourth win in a winner-take-all game to his credit.
McCullers, on the other hand, surrendered the two-run home run to Arozarena and a second-inning solo homer to Mike Zunino. Those were the only three runs he allowed, but he needed 75 pitches to get 11 outs and did not complete four innings. Houston's bullpen worked hard in Games 4-6 and Jose Urquidy surrendered an insurance run on a sixth inning sacrifice fly.
Cash had a quick hook again
In Game 6, Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Blake Snell with his pitch count at 82 in the fourth inning, and Snell wasn't happy. "It's just frustrating. Give me a shot. I want to be that guy that takes the team deep into the ballgame," Snell said afterward.
The bullpen went on to blow the lead. Quick hooks and bullpening are what the Rays do though, and Cash stuck to the game plan in Game 7. Even with Morton cruising and his pitch count sitting at 66, Cash went to his bullpen in the sixth inning. Michael Brantley was at the plate representing the tying run following a walk and an infield single. Unlike Game 6, the quick hook worked in Game 7. Nick Anderson, who had allowed a run in each of his previous three outings, replaced Morton and got the inning-ending ground ball from Brantley. The Astros pushed across a pair of runs against Anderson and Pete Fairbanks in the eighth, but otherwise kept the Houston offense at bay.
Tampa's pitching in Game 7:
In two winner-take-all games this postseason (ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 7), Tampa's pitching staff held the high-powered Yankees and Astros offenses to three runs and 10 hits in 18 innings. Pretty good way to win an elimination game, that is. The Rays have now won 63 straight games when leading after seven innings, the longest active streak in baseball.
The Rays are going to the World Series
For the second time in franchise history. They went to the World Series in 2008 but lost to the Phillies, so they are still searching for their first championship. Tampa will take on the winner of Sunday night's Game 7 between the Braves and Dodgers. Game 1 of the World Series is scheduled for Tuesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The Rays have not yet announced their pitching plans, though Tyler Glasnow lines up to pitch Game 1 with an extra day of rest. He will presumably get the ball Tuesday.