When the Tampa Bay Rays took to Tropicana Field this afternoon to play a do-or-die third game in this ALDS against the Astros, it had been almost six years to the day since they’d held a lead in a postseason series. That was in Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS. They had dropped the first two games in Boston, dominated by Jon Lester and John Lackey, sunk by two terrible starts from would-be aces Matt Moore and David Price, hammered by Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, and David Ortiz. From the start, the Rays hadn’t been favored to win the series, a second Wild Card team that had outplayed their Pythag by five games; after their performance in front of the hostile Fenway masses, their outlook seemed grim.
But in Game 3, things took a turn. In front of the Trop’s biggest crowd of the season, the Rays finally got a good starting pitching performance, with Alex Cobb going five innings and allowing three runs (two of them earned). Meanwhile, the offense kept it close with one pivotal swing: Face of the franchise Evan Longoria, with two on and two out in the bottom of the fifth, went deep off Clay Buchholz, preventing the Red Sox from holding onto their lead. Tampa added another run in the eighth. And after Fernando Rodney blew the save, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, Jose Lobaton walked it off. It was the kind of moment that, when teams manage to turn around a postseason series, people look back on–a hinge moment, a moment where hope really returns.
In Game 4, it was Jake Peavy for the Sox and anyone who had an arm for the Rays; for five and a half innings, the two teams traded tense zeroes. Then came a leadoff double in the bottom of the sixth for Yunel Escobar. An out later, a single from David DeJesus drove him in. The Rays, once again, had the lead. Their fate was in their hands. They had a chance of pushing the series back to Boston for a decisive Game 5, and as the Wild Card team, they knew as well as anyone that in an all-hands-on-deck, winner-take-all contest, anything can happen.
Of course, that anything never got a chance to happen. The Rays promptly lost that slim lead. They lost the game, and the series, 3-1. The Red Sox went on to be World Series champions; the Rays didn’t play October baseball again until this year.
The similarities between the ALDS situations of the 2013 Rays and their 2019 counterparts are, I think, fairly obvious. Both are second Wild Card teams; both, in the first two games of their series, looked overmatched. Now, both have won Game 3 at home. But these Rays, taking their first win of the series against the Astros, did so in a rather different manner than the Rays of six years again. Game 3 wasn’t a tense, back-and-forth affair, the way their only win against the 2013 Red Sox was. It was a combination of contributions — one from an unflappable postseason hero, one from the beloved, struggling homegrown player — adding up to a lead that, once gained, was never surrendered.
The Tampa Bay Times ran an article this morning ahead of Game 3 entitled “The Peace of Mind of Charlie Morton.” In it, various Rays players and staff express their confidence that they’d live to see a Game 4, thanks to their faith in the day’s starting pitcher. “I think it’s a huge confidence boost for everyone,” said Brandon Lowe of having Morton start a potential elimination game; “[W]e’ll have all the confidence in the world we’re going to compete in a Game 4 in this series,” said pitching coach Kyle Snyder.
All this is typical when it comes to teams talking about the players they have starting postseason games, but over the past three seasons, Morton has made something of a reputation for himself as a big-game pitcher. That’s not to say he’s been indomitable in the postseason. He had a disastrous appearance in Game 3 of the Astros’ 2017 ALDS against the Yankees, allowing seven earned runs in just three and two-thirds innings pitched; his lone appearance in last year’s postseason, in Game 4 of the Astros’ losing ALCS effort against the Red Sox, was weak –he was out of the game after just two and a third, having allowed three runs to score. But in the three potential elimination games he’s pitched in before today — Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, and this year’s AL Wild Card Game — Morton dominated, allowing just two runs, only one of them earned, over 13 innings pitched. And his team emerged from all three of those games victorious.
It’s only 13 innings, of course. You could say it’s flukey, and you might be right. But when those 13 dominant innings are all in winner-take-all games, it certainly matters to a player’s teammates. Morton was the Rays’ best player this season, with 2.1 WAR more than second-place finisher Austin Meadows. He was behind only Lance Lynn and the two-headed monster at the top of the Astros’ rotation in the American League. With their season on the line, the Rays had faith that their guy would deliver — even against the terrifying Astros lineup, even with Zack Greinke on the mound for the opposition.
And despite a top of the first that featured a home run, a walk, and an error, Morton rewarded their faith. The home run to Altuve was the only run the Astros managed off him. He pitched five scoreless innings with a dominance that one had to see to believe.
Charlie Morton, 94mph Fastball and 80mph Curveball Spin, Overlay pic.twitter.com/ooI111DvAf
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 7, 2019
The last time the Rays were in the postseason, Kevin Kiermaier was a 23-year-old rookie who had appeared in all of one regular-season game with the team. That he had even that many was impressive: Of the players selected in the 31st round of the 2010 draft, only six have appeared in the majors, and only one has been more valuable. (That player is Aaron Judge, who did not sign that year and was drafted again by the Yankees in the first round of the 2013 draft.) He did not have a plate appearance in the Rays’ postseason run that year, appearing once as a defensive replacement in the Wild Card Game, and could only watch as his team was eliminated in the division series.
Since then, on a Rays team that is all too familiar with the departures of beloved and long-tenured players, Kiermaier has been a consistently enjoyable presence for Tampa fans, one of those players who, while not amazing in the grand scheme of baseball, is fun to have on your team — especially when your team isn’t that good. He’s never been a star at the plate — his 117 wRC+ in his 2014 rookie campaign remains the best of his career — and he has trouble staying on the field. But he’s remained an above-average defender. He moves elegantly in center, a mainstay of highlight reels and Twitter moments, even as the crowds of his home stadium have dwindled. And he is signed through 2022, with a club option for 2023. He is a mainstay, a lighthouse standing in the turbulent and lonely sea.
While the Rays soared in 2019, boosted by rookies like Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe and new acquisitions like Tommy Pham and Morton, Kiermaier struggled. Though he managed to play in over 120 games for just the second time in his career, he had the worst batting season of his career. Among players with at least 450 plate appearances, his .278 OBP was the worst in baseball. He went 0-for-4 in the Wild Card Game, 0-for-3 in Game 1. The only player remaining from the last Rays team to make the postseason had finally arrived back on baseball’s big stage, and he had failed to reach base even once.
It was against Gerrit Cole, of all people, that Kiermaier finally managed something, sending a double into right field on the first pitch he saw from Cole in the eighth Saturday night. It was the hit that, for the first time in the game, gave the Rays a runner in scoring position. One batter later, Cole was in the dugout — at long last, a sort of breakthrough.
Kiermaier came up to bat for the first time in Game 4 in the bottom of the third. There were two runners on base, and two out; the Astros had the lead yet again. In Game 3, the Rays left the bases loaded in the ninth, an opportunity to seize control of the game wasted. In Game 4, Kiermaier didn’t waste the chance. On a 2-1 changeup in the middle of the zone, he gave the Rays a lead they wouldn’t give back.
And as the ball hit the seats by the Ray tank, as the Trop came alive — truly alive, for the first time in a long time — Kiermaier jumped in the air, as though he had been lifted. There really was hope.
The Rays went on to heap seven more runs on the heads of various Astros, and as the game went on, the energy in the usually-barren stadium only seemed to get louder. Alex Bregman‘s plate appearances were greeted with boos, and then Yordan Alvarez’s. Every strike gained a roar, and every strike not called, a boo. Some have said that the atmosphere in Tropicana Field isn’t a baseball atmosphere. For today, at least, that wasn’t true. The empty stands and dulled sounds of the regular-season Trop are numbing to the senses; today’s game was a shot of adrenaline.
Tomorrow, the Rays will play again at the Trop. They have Justin Verlander to look forward to, he who turned his name into a verb against them in Game 1. It will be no easy task to carry this energy forward. It might be impossible. For tonight, though, if only for tonight, there is hope for baseball in St. Petersburg.
Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.