Alex Bregman will bring passion the Astros' plight. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros fans pack Minute Maid and bring the noise for the playoffs. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Minute Maid Park was a loud enough madhouse to contribute to the Rays letting an out drop for a hit in Game 1. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are the heart of a historic run. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa's defense is often acrobatic and spectacular for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez has four multi home run games in his first 60 games in MLB. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Charlie Morton left his first start back in Houston searching for answers. But his legacy with the Astros is forever secure. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Walking out of Tropicana Field after Game 4 with the clock ticking toward midnight, but the Tampa Bay Rays showing no signs of turning into a pumpkin just yet, I pass a few security guards having a little fun. “See you Tuesday!” they call out to one another, laughing.
Of course, Tuesday would be when the team with the worst record remaining would host its first American League Championship Series game. Everyone thought the Astros would be in The Bronx playing Game 3 on Tuesday, but those plans, well very much still in reach, are no longer so definite.
Not with the Rays having roared back to outscore the Astros 14-4 in their retirement wonderland to tie this first round division series at 2-2. Now, the Tropicana Field security guards are having their fun. And the Tampa Bay area media is having their fun. Rays TV analyst Brian Anderson was so sure that Tampa Bay would win Game 4 beforehand that anyone sitting anywhere within several rows of him in the press box couldn’t help but hear it.
Anderson was right — and he’s probably making plans for his ALCS travel already.
This is what happens when the favorite wobbles. Everyone around the underdog gets giddy — and starts anticipating the fall. It would be foolish to think the Rays players share this view, though.
After all, they know how easy it is to strike out against Gerrit Cole, the man they’ll face in Thursday night’s winner-take-all Game 5.
“We believe in ourselves,” Jose Altuve, the Astros’ heart and soul, says. “We’re going to go out there and prove it.”
The Astros are 3-1 in true winner-take-all elimination games — games where both teams know they can go home or advance based on nine innings of baseball — under A.J. Hinch. That includes the 2015 Wildcard win over the Yankees in New York, the 2017 Game 7 American League Championship Series triumph over New York again, the Game 7 World Series title decider vs. the Dodgers and a 2015 division series loss to Kansas City.
“There’s no quit in this team,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman says.
Instead, there is arguably even more star power than those 2017 champions could ever dream of. Bregman is an even better hitter today than he was in 2017, having turned himself into a full blown MVP level force. Yordan Alvarez is living up to all of this Rookie of the Year prowess in the playoffs, just missing a monster home run from his October resume. And Gerrit Cole gives the Astros a 1B or 1A ace that those champs just could not match.
Though the whole baseball world may have underestimated Charlie Morton back then. Morton was the Astros’ second best pitcher behind Justin Verlander in that title run, not Dallas Keuchel as most assumed.
Still, just because 2019 far surpasses 2017 in stars does not guarantee baseball’s Dream Team anything. Not in a best-of-five series that’s turned into a one game win-or-go-home scenario.
Just ask those 106 win Dodgers who jumped out to a 3-0 lead in their winner-take-all Game 5 Wednesday night — and still found themselves ushered right out of the playoffs. Though, you can be pretty sure that Astros manager A.J. Hinch will not be using Zack Greinke in the eighth inning on Thursday night the way Dave Roberts deployed Clayton Kershaw.
Some aces are better than others in October. Gerrit Cole made a point of going over to sign autographs for a large group of Astros fans at The Trop while Houston took batting practice before Game 4. Cole patiently signed almost everything, shook a few fans’ hands who asked for that. If Cole is looking ahead to his offseason free agency, it sure doesn’t show.
Extending the season isn’t about wills, wants or even karma (though that never hurts). It’s about grabbing opportunity — and the moment that is here.
In the Astros’ case, it’s all about trying to win and stay home to host those waiting Yankees on Saturday night.
“See you Tuesday!” That’s not a boast as much as it’s the question of the series. It all sounds fun — unless you lose. Then, all the funny lines in the world just haunt.