SAN DIEGO — The angst, worry and dread that built over three consecutive losses disappeared Saturday night. The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series after all.
They secured the trip, their first since 2008 and second in franchise history, with a 4-2 win over the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park.
Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino homered to give them the early lead they craved, Charlie Morton delivered another postseason gem working into the sixth, and the bullpen took it from there, though not without some concern.
Nick Anderson got the Rays to the eighth, but after two reached, the Rays went to Pete Fairbanks. A walk loaded the bases and a single by Carlos Correa cut a 4-0 lead to 4-2, before Fairbanks got out of the inning. Fairbanks was back in the ninth to close things out.
The Rays now advance to the World Series that starts Tuesday in Arlington, Texas, to face either the Braves or the Dodgers, who are playing their own Game 7 on Sunday night.
That is certainly better than the alternative. A loss and the Rays would have joined the 2004 Yankees as the only teams to lose a best-of-seven series after taking 3-0 leads. The Yankees’ flop against the Red Sox stands alone among the 39 teams to be up 3-0.
Though the Rays lost momentum in failing three straight days to close out the ALCS, they insisted they never lost confidence, or faith.
Team leader Kevin Kiermaier said he could tell by the pregame vibe in the clubhouse, loose attitude and loud music, they were in a good place Saturday.
“There’s no words needed,” he said. “We know what we’re playing for. We want to represent this organization and get to that final stage. We’re not playing for just ourselves and our family and friends. We’re playing for a community, all the Rays fans out there. We want to take that final leap into playing on the biggest stage of the year.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash had been talking for days about the need to get their offense going, saying before Saturday’s game he was “confident that we’re going we’re going to break out a little bit here to give Charlie some runs.”
They apparently were listening this time, and right from the start.
After leadoff man Manuel Margot was hit by Lance McCullers Jr.’s first pitch and Brandon Lowe struck out, Arozarena delivered, with a homer to center for a 2-0 lead.
There was some history attached, as it was Arozarena’s seventh homer of the postseason, the most by any rookie, surpassing the six hit by former Ray Evan Longoria in 2008. Arozarena also tied B.J. Upton’s overall Rays record for a postseason.
The Rays expanded the lead to 3-0 in the second on a 430-foot homer to left by Mike Zunino, his second of the ALCS and fourth of the postseason. McCullers, the Tampa native, didn’t make it out of the fourth.
The Rays added on in the sixth, as Ji-Man Choi singled, went to second on Willy Adames’ walk, third on Joey Wendle’s line out to right and scored on Zunino’s sac fly.
Morton, who already was the first pitcher with wins in three winner-take-all matchups, was on his game from the start again. He zipped through the first five innings effectively and efficiently, allowing only one hit and throwing just 49 pitches.
The bigger surprise was that Cash took him out at really the first sign of trouble in the sixth, a one-out four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado, then a two-out infield single by Jose Altuve.
Cash went to Anderson, whose last outing ended with Carlos Correa’s walk-off homer in Game 5. Anderson got Michael Brantley to ground out, and worked into the eighth.
NOW FOR A LITTLE HISTORY
When the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, it was a major surprise.
They had made a shocking and historic worst-to-first turnaround in the regular season, going from 96 losses the year before to 97 wins, and kept rolling past the Chicago White Sox, then the rival Boston Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game ALCS.
When they moved on the face the Philadelphia Phillies, in a way they were just happy to be there. And maybe less so when they got to Philadelphia and had to play in miserable weather, losing in five games.
But this year, the Rays expected to get there thanks to the experience gained last year. The Rays made the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and first time under Cash, taking the eventual AL champion Astros to a fifth and final game in the division series. That only fueled the Rays’ confidence.