The Rays Stick to Their Game Plan and Reach a Second World Series

Guided by the club’s strict principles, Manager Kevin Cash pulled his pitcher at a crucial point in Game 7 and was rewarded with a victory over the Houston Astros.

The Tampa Bay Rays told Charlie Morton it would happen. When they chased him as a free agent before last season, their front office did not present to him this precise scenario — an unprecedented path to the World Series, with him leading the way — but they shared their methodology. Part of Morton recoiled at the message.

“‘Hey, we don’t need you to go seven, eight innings — we’re built so that you give us five or six good ones and we’ll take care of the rest,’” Morton, 36, said earlier this month, recalling the Rays’ pitch to him. “I don’t know how I feel about that; coming up, you want to go seven, eight, you want that complete game.”

Morton’s role models as a young major leaguer were other tall right-handers who craved big moments and burned to work deep into games: Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and A.J. Burnett. His generation of pitchers, Morton said, is probably the last to be raised with that mentality.

“And you just see this evolution in the game — teams would rather have you go out and strike a bunch of guys out over five or six innings,” he added. “I don’t know, it’s kind of sad to see — but the guys that can consistently go out and give you six, seven, eight innings, two to four runs, and throw 200 innings a year, I think that’s gone the way of the dodo bird.”

Nowhere was the evolution of the baseball kingdom more obvious than in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night in San Diego. The Rays stuck to their principles at the pivotal moment, and the reward was a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros that sent them to their second World Series, and first since losing to Philadelphia in 2008.

The Rays had won the first three games of this A.L.C.S., then lost three in a row. Only once before had a team done that in a best-of-seven series, and that team — the 2004 Yankees — was beaten soundly in Game 7 by the Boston Red Sox. The Rays, then, had no precedent for recovering from such a tumble.

“I don’t know if I went to bed,” Manager Kevin Cash said, asked about his torment after losing Game 6 on Friday. “It was tough, there’s no doubt. A lot of anxiety. Believe me, we’ve all watched ‘Four Days In October.’ I didn’t want to see it again.”

Cash was referring to a documentary about Boston’s famous comeback; several Astros said they had watched it for inspiration as they attempted to match the feat. But Houston fell one win short, and Cash’s discipline with Morton was a big reason.

Morton, who won Game 7s in the A.L.C.S. and in the World Series for Houston in 2017, retired 16 of his first 17 hitters on Saturday and took a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning behind homers by Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino. Morton was extremely efficient; after a walk and a two-out infield single in the sixth, he had thrown just 66 pitches, about two-thirds of a traditional starter’s workload.

But Cash let him go no further, pulling Morton for Nick Anderson, whose last pitch had been crushed for a game-ending homer by Carlos Correa on Thursday. The next Astros hitter, Michael Brantley, represented the tying run, and after having hit a single and a fly out off Morton earlier in the game, he would not get a third look.

“It was pretty simple: third time through, we value that, we value our process,” Cash said. “Michael Brantley’s as talented a hitter as anybody in baseball, and if you give him too many looks, he’s going to get you. The leverage at that point might not have been any higher in the game.”

Anderson gave him a better matchup, Cash insisted, and the crux of the Rays’ approach is to tilt as many matchups as possible in their favor. The Rays try to limit the number of times opposing hitters face their pitchers, and batters hit .381 this season when facing Morton for the third time in a game.

At that moment, Cash said, he could not abandon the script — even if the instinct of most viewers, including the one with the best angle of all, screamed otherwise.

“I want to say yes,” said Zunino, the catcher, when asked if he was surprised to see Morton leave. “But Cash pulls all the right moves. This was the best I’ve seen Charlie in the time I’ve been able to catch him in the past two years. He had everything working.”

On the TBS broadcast, the play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson said that “all of Twitter is ablaze” as the screen showed a tweet from the Phillies’ Andrew McCutchen, a former teammate of Morton’s with Pittsburgh. McCutchen wrote he would have left Morton in, and the analyst Jeff Francoeur said he agreed.

Vindication came quickly for Cash, when Brantley rolled the second pitch, a 97 mile-an-hour fastball, to second base for a ground out, keeping the shutout intact. When Brantley came up again in the eighth, Cash dutifully summoned a new pitcher, Pete Fairbanks, a hulking young right-hander who throws even harder than Anderson.

Fairbanks allowed two runs when Correa grounded a single to right against an overshifted infield. But he locked down the pennant in the ninth when Aledmys Diaz, the potential tying run, flied out to Manuel Margot in right.

It was Morton’s second victory of the A.L.C.S., and while he fired 10⅔ shutout innings in the series, the Most Valuable Player Award went to Arozarena, a breakout October star. Arozarena hit .321 in the A.L.C.S. — the rest of the Rays batted .183 — and smashed four home runs. He now has seven this postseason, a new rookie record.

“We’ve been facing some great pitchers and some great teams,” Arozarena said through an interpreter. “But the ball’s looking good. The ball’s looking real nice to me.”

His two-run homer in the first inning, off Lance McCullers Jr., erased any momentum the Astros had earned with their three wins while facing elimination. But Morton already had a sense that his team would be fine.

“After last night, it’s like — you give away a 3-0 lead, and I came to the park today and everybody’s just good to go, squared away, high energy in the first inning,” he said. “They’re out there just hungry for the win.”

It took longer than they hoped, but the Rays got that win on Saturday, and they did it their way.


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