SAN DIEGO – These Rays are going to be known for something.
Friday’s 7-4 loss to the Astros sets up a winner-take-all American League Championship Series Game 7 on Saturday night at Petco Park.
Either the Rays can rebound after three straight losses to earn their first World Series berth since 2008 and second in franchise history. Or they’ll become the team that lost four straight after taking a 3-0 lead, joining the 2004 Yankees (against the Red Sox) as the only other team to blow such a commanding advantage.
Veteran Charlie Morton, the postseason maestro, is expected to start for the Rays against Tampa native Lance McCullers Jr. in a rematch of Game 2, with first pitch at 8:37.
The first 38 times a team took a 3-0 lead in a postseason series, 30 completed the sweep, five won it in Game 5 and two in Game 6.
The Rays actually had an early 1-0 lead Friday, but Blake Snell wasn’t sharp, and manager Kevin Cash’s decision to pull him after the first runner reached in the fifth didn’t work as the Astros scored four.
With their offense an issue throughout the season, the Rays talked a lot after Thursday’s game, and before Friday’s, about the need to get a big hit and an early lead.
The Houston Astros forced an AL Championship Series Game 6 with a walk-off Thursday but the Tampa Bay Rays can seal things up with a win tonight in San Diego.
In the second inning, against Astros starter Framber Valdez, they got both.
Brandon Lowe, he of the 4-for-45 start to the postseason, took advantage of batting fifth and playing leftfield, and got the Rays started with a one-out single. Willy Adames followed with a two-out double, and the Rays scored first for the first time since Game 2.
Snell kept the Astros off the board through the first four innings, but he didn’t look particularly good in doing so, walking three of the first seven Astros, needing 42 pitches to get through the first two innings despite two double plays. For the night, Snell threw 82 pitches (45 strikes) to 17 batters, with 11 first-pitch strikes but seven three ball counts.
When Snell started the fifth with a five-pitch walk to Yuli Gurriel and a single by No. 8 hitter Aledmys Diaz, Cash had seen enough. Snell made it clear he was unhappy with the decision, through demeanor and words.
As many moves as Cash has made this season that have worked out, this one failed, and miserably.
Diego Castillo did not provide his usual relief, and the defense didn’t help. The 1-0 lead quickly became a 4-1 deficit.
After the Astros bunted the runners to second and third, the Rays had the infield in and shifted to the third base side. George Springer grounded a ball to the right of second base that scored two.
Those were the first two inherited runners the Rays bullpen allowed to score this postseason, having stranded the first 21, most in major-league history.
Jose Altuve then lashed a double to left, and as Lowe opted to throw to second, Springer came around from first to score.
A passed ball and a walk later, Carlos Correa, who hit the walkoff homer that beat the Rays on Thursday, grounded a single between third baseman Joey Wendle and Adames. That was the kind of ball that earlier in the series was a foot either way and the Rays made a play on it.
For his four-plus innings, Snell threw 82 pitches (45 strikes) to 17 batters, with 11 first-pitch strikes but seven three-ball counts.
The 4-1 lead became 7-1 by the seventh. Kyle Tucker, the Tampa Plant graduate, homered off Rays rookie lefty Shane McClanahan, the USF product. Hits by Altuve, Brantley, Correa and a Tucker sac fly netted two more in the seventh.
Manuel Margot homered for the Rays in the seventh and again in the eighth.
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