Astros’ Luck Deserts Them Again in Game 3 Loss as Rays Take 3–0 Series Lead by Jon Tayler October 14, 2020 In Game 1 of the ALCS, the Astros out-hit the Rays, struck out eight fewer times, watched Framber Valdez whiff eight batters in six innings, put 13 runners on, and threatened in nearly every inning. They lost. In Game 2 of the ALCS, the Astros out-hit the Rays, struck out five fewer times, watched Lance McCullers Jr. whiff 11 batters in seven innings, put 16 balls into play at 95 mph or harder and 13 runners on base, and threatened in nearly every inning. They lost. Game 3 of the ALCS, though, would be different. Jose Urquidy hit a season-high 98 mph with his fastball, striking out four through five innings. A first-inning homer from Jose Altuve gave the Astros an early lead. They out-hit the Rays yet again and put 11 runners on and threatened in nearly every inning. They lost. The battle for the American League is, barring a miracle comeback, over. In beating Houston 5–2, Tampa Bay took a 3–0 series lead in the best-of-seven matchup and can both clinch its first pennant in 12 years and deny the Astros their third of the last four seasons with a victory on Wednesday. The best team in the Junior Circuit during the truncated 2020 campaign has gone 8–2 this postseason and looked virtually unbeatable in every facet of the game. The pitching has been crisp, the defense has been perfect, the offense has kept the line moving. Throughout October, the Rays have been a well-oiled machine. So were the Astros coming into this series, having blitzed Minnesota and Oakland with the return of the world-thumping lineup that turned them into champions in 2017 (along with that whole sign-stealing enterprise) and established them as MLB’s version of the Patriots in more ways than one. Between the scandal and the lack of remorse and the way Houston’s players puffed out their chests for maximum beating, there will be few who either weep for the Astros when their time comes or chalk up their turn from sub-.500 squad to coming within a hair of a pennant to anything other than more chicanery from a crooked franchise, proof or no. (To be clear: There’s no evidence the Astros have been cheating this postseason, but it’s unlikely most fans will give this particular group the benefit of the doubt ever again.) Houston made its own luck throughout its run and took advantage of the bounces that came its way too, as every champion and contender does. But against Tampa, nothing has gone the Astros’ way. Games 1–3 have been a parade of runners stranded and balls stung right at fielders and defensive meltdowns at the worst possible time. If you tried to keep track of every time a Houston hitter slammed his helmet down or dropped his arms in frustration or tilted his head to the sky pleading for divine intervention on a ball that found a glove instead of grass, your counter would long ago have hit triple digits. Game 3 was the best sign yet that, if there is a moral arc to the baseball universe, it bends away from Houston. Altuve’s solo homer got the Astros started on the right note, but it was Alex Bregman’s first at-bat that ended up setting the tone. No one had a worse time of things in Game 2 than Bregman, who put five balls in play, all of which left his bat at 95 mph or more, including two at 103 and one at a blistering 106.8. Not one of them turned into a hit. Facing Ryan Yarbrough in his first turn of Game 3, Bregman tagged a fly ball deep to center in Petco Park. It had extra bases written all over it … until Kevin Kiermaier drifted back and jumped into the wall at the last moment to snag it out of the air. More of the same followed. In the third, with two on and two out, Carlos Correa tagged a line drive to the right-center gap, a guaranteed two-run hit … until Kiermaier dove, full extension, to grab it and end the inning. Kyle Tucker smacked a line drive up the middle in the fourth with an expected batting average of .660, only for it to be snared by third baseman Joey Wendle, shifted to precisely the right spot. Correa smoked a groundball to shortstop in the sixth at 110 mph that Willy Adames turned into an easy out. The seventh started with Yuli Gurriel ripping a line drive right at John Curtiss, who sprang off the mound to snare it and fire to first for the first out, and ended with Hunter Renfroe — only in the game because Kiermaier had to leave with a bruised wrist — diving in right to corral a George Springer bloop for the third out. Nothing fell, nothing found space, nothing went through. Not that any of that mattered after a disastrous sixth inning that put Game 3 and this series out of reach for Houston. The first two runners of the inning reached against Urquidy, the second on a terrible throw by Altuve that spoiled a would-be double play and was his third error, all throwing, in the last 24 hours. As a dejected Altuve stood alone on the infield, Dusty Baker walked to the mound and swapped in hard-throwing rookie Enoli Paredes, who promptly gave up two straight singles to turn a 1–0 lead into a 2–1 deficit. From there, the inning devolved into dink-and-dunk chaos. The softest hit ball of the game, at a scalding 21.2 mph, was a popped-up bunt by Manuel Margot in that sixth that was the first sacrifice both of these playoffs and of the Rays’ entire season. Naturally, it worked, as Martín Maldonado tripped over Margot’s foot while trying and failing to catch the ball. The third run of the inning crossed the plate on back-to-back hit batters. The play that broke the game open was a 68 mph fly ball off the bat of Renfroe that went all of 204 feet but landed in an empty patch of right field for a two-run double to make it 5–1 Rays. The Astros didn’t go quietly. Michael Brantley homered in the sixth to cut it to 5–2. They loaded the bases with one out in the eighth and put two on with one out in the ninth. But both times, the rally fizzled just as it had every time prior. Renfroe’s sliding catch on a looping Tucker fly ball sank the threat in the eighth. In that final frame, a dubious checked-swing call on Altuve took the air out of Houston’s sails before Brantley popped up to end it. When the obituary of the 2020 Astros is written, it’ll note how singularly, impossibly awful they’ve been at the plate in the ALCS: 31 left on base, 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position, five runs in 27 innings. It’s a fluke to a certain degree, as Houston was perfectly fine in those situations during the regular season. But at the same time, it’s no accident—just the product of inescapable bad luck, compounded by a Rays team that takes advantage of every mistake and missed opportunity. Sometimes, you’re just going to lose.