Chas McCormick has had some big moments for the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jason Castro drew the game-winning walk after Chas McCormick tied on it on an even more epic walk. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Rays have plenty of power of their own — and any series with the Astros seems to bring October worthy drama. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman still has a flair for the big moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman is finding his mojo again. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve is still a hitter opposing pitchers have to fear. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kyle Tucker knows how to do damage with a good swing. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa changes games with his glove. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yuli Gurriel has become one of the Astros' steadfast performers. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jake Meyers is making an impact for the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Urquidy is a coveted potential Astros trading chip for good reason. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros manager Dusty Baker has kept the franchise's winning ways going, but getting his team out of Fenway still in the series might be his greatest challenge. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and GM James Click share a laugh. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Randy Arozarena drills a Phil Maton slider high over the right field wall and breaks into histrionics worthy of a seriously important October blast. Arozarena pounds his chest and makes more hand gestures than a drum major on a power trip. There are WWE stars who are less demonstrative. Then again, who can blame the Tampa Bay Rays’ 26-year-old “rookie?”
It almost feels like October in Minute Maid Park and Arozarena is certain he’s won another big game for the Rays.
Only, Arozarena forgets he is playing the Houston Astros. Major League Baseball’s resident big game masters render Arozarena’s top of the ninth party rather moot. This is what the Astros do when the importance of the games inflate — and the pressure builds. They find a way to win. And on this night, Jose Altuve’s team gives Randy Arozarena and the rest of baseball a reminder of just what they’re made of.
After Arozarena hits that large home run in the top of the ninth, the Astros turn around and grab the game away from Tampa in the bottom of the ninth. Houston scores twice without hitting a ball out of the infield to win 4-3. And the stunned Rays can only shake their heads as Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Co. celebrate another walkoff. Forged of equal parts will and skill.
“We’re playing a quality team,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says. “These guys rise to the occasion.”
Yes, these Astros still know how to seize a big baseball moment better than anyone. Soon, their struggles with below .500 teams this season will be a meaningless side note. Next week, starting with a best-of-five divisional series against the Chicago White Sox, the Astros will only be playing heavyweights.
October is the arena in which this special band of players excels. And this last Tuesday in September against the Rays sure feels like a warmup for the playoff fun to come. By scoring two runs in the bottom of ninth on an epic 10-pitch walk from Chas McCormick — one in which he fouls off four straight good pitches down to his last strike — and an eight-pitch walk from pinch hitter Jason Castro, the Astros poke the Rays where it hurts most.
Altuve’s team reminds Tampa Bay that they never go away easily. Yes, the Rays beat the Astros in the 2020 American League Championship Series with the then-largely unknown Arozarena playing home run hero, but they needed to survive Houston coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a seventh game to do it.
Nothing ever comes easy against these Astros. The Astros aren’t just The Most Hated Team in Baseball just because of that sign stealing scandal that seems to selectively forget how many other teams were conducting their own versions of baseball espionage. No, these Astros of Altuve, Correa and Bregman are despised because they’re so annoying to play against too.
These battlers just never stopped fighting.
“Character’s not an issue on this team,” Baker says after win No. 92. “This team has been there before. They continue to believe.”
The Core Astros, Randy Arozarena and the Playoff Fight
The Core Astros — the five remaining players who’ve been together for this entire run of four straight league championship series and two World Series in four years (Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Lance McCullers Jr.) — keep indoctrinating new Astros into this club of relentlessness, too. On this night, it’s Chas McCormick, the young outfielder who did not have a regular role until general manager James Click traded away Myles Straw in part to give him one, who absolutely refuses to let JT Chargois put him away.
“Those guys did an unbelievable job,” Chargois says of the Astros hitters’ afterward. “It was a great baseball game, and it didn’t work out.”
This is what these Astros can still do. This team is not nearly as strong as that often dominant 2019 squad that had Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and George Springer on it. But they know how to hang around and hang around with good teams – until a chance to win it presents itself. On this night, that means getting solo home runs from Bregman (in the bottom of the sixth inning to break up the Rays’ no hitter) and Altuve (in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie things at 2) and making a moment out of almost nothing in the ninth.
“Character’s not an issue on this team. This team has been there before. They continue to believe.” — Dusty Baker
The Astros’ ninth starts with infield singles from Yordan Alvarez and Correa, who is only proven safe after a long replay review. It includes a ground out and an intentional walk. Then, McCormick and Castro keep fouling off potential put away pitches. Six in all, all with two strikes, between them.
Big game. Never die. Moment seized.
“That was a string of really big at-bats,” Castro says. “. . . Chas with a huge at-bat. That was a really big at-bat. That kind of setup the way it ended. It was great to see just that display of really continual good approaches and at-bats.”
This game plays out like an October drama fest, complete with the big home runs, unexpected twists and a ninth inning super finish. In the big scheme of things, the penultimate series of the regular season will not decide much. The Rays and Astros are both postseason bound — and set to play other teams in the first round. But the two best teams in the American League this season, the two teams that met in that bizarre COVID ALCS in San Diego last October, always seem to be circling each other.
Astros-Rays brings its own drama. The Astros still need one more win (or one more Seattle loss) to officially clinch their fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs. That formality is denied on this night when the Mariners finish off the Oakland A’s just after midnight. Before leaving Minute Maid, Dusty Baker says he plans to check that score when he gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It turns out to not be worth getting up for.
But any series with the Rays is. A lively crowd of 32,297 is on its feet in the bottom of the ninth, stomping and cheering as the home team comes through again. Afterwards, Jose Altuve meets the media on Zoom wearing a backwards baseball cap and a New Balance T-shirt, looking very much at home in the moment.
By hook or by crook — or foul off after foul off — these Astros find a way.
“Those were hell of at-bats from McCormick and then Castro, fouling off quality pitches,” Baker says.
Randy Arozarena enjoyed a heck of a celebration — through some Astros fans’ boos. But the Rays’ super slugger may have forgot who he was playing. These are still the Houston Astros, still the ultimate big game hunters.
Big game. Never die. Moment seized.
It is just another reminder of what the Houston Astros are all about. And a warning to the rest of baseball. Don’t forget who you’re dealing with.