SAN DIEGO — By now, every baseball fan has heard of remarkable rookie Randy Arozarena. They're fast becoming familiar with his World Series-bound Tampa Bay teammates, too.
“You sit here and look at this group of guys, and I always say we don’t have a lot of household names, but at the same time, people are making a name for themselves right now,” outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
They kept doing that in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series on Saturday night.
Arozarena homered again, 36-year-old Charlie Morton was brilliant against his former team and the Rays silenced the Houston Astros 4-2 to reach the World Series for just the second time.
The Rays will face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves in the World Series in Arlington, Texas, starting Tuesday night. Game 7 of the NLCS is Sunday night.
Right fielder Manuel Margot squeezed Aledmys Diaz’s flyball in his glove for the final out and fireworks burst overhead as the Rays began to celebrate the AL pennant in an NL ballpark, a byproduct of the pandemic-shortened season.
“If you don’t know the name by now, they better learn them, because we’ve we got some boys who can play,” said Kiermaier, the Rays' longest-tenured player.
That would start with Arozarena, who set a rookie record with his seventh home run — a two-run shot in the first — and was chosen ALCS MVP.
“Randy Arozarena, I don't have any words to describe what he's done, what he's meant to us this postseason,” manager Kevin Cash said. “For him to have a bat in his hand with an opportunity for a big home run, really, I think it settled a lot of people in the dugout. It certainly did me.”
Arozarena, a relative unknown before the postseason, has brought power and some serious dance moves to the Rays.
“I wouldn't say I was chasing MVP, but I was just trying to do everything for the team, anything to allow us to win,” the 25-year-old left fielder said through a translator.
Arozarena did Cristiano Ronaldo’s famous goal celebration after his homer and again after receiving the MVP. Eight nights earlier, he threw down a breakdancing move to win a dance-off with Brett Phillips while the Rays celebrated their AL Division Series win against the New York Yankees.
Tampa Bay’s only other World Series appearance was in 2008, when it lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.
The innovative Rays led the AL with a 40-20 record in the pandemic-shortened season. Known for their pitching and defense, they also introduced the concept of the starter and sometimes deploy a four-man outfield.
Tampa Bay snapped a three-game losing streak and prevented the Astros from matching the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the only major league team to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series.
“The last three days were pretty agonizing,” Cash said.
The Rays also kept the Astros from becoming the first team to win a pennant with a losing regular-season record (29-31).
The loss ended Houston's first season since its sign-stealing scandal was revealed. The Astros were viewed by many fans as villains for their role in the cheating scandal en route to the 2017 title against the Dodgers, a scam that eventually cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs.
Under new manager Dusty Baker, the Astros were trying to reach the World Series for the third time in four seasons. They lost Game 7 to Washington last year.
“It’s frustrating, but these guys fought. They fought to the very end," Baker said. "A lot of people didn’t have us even making the playoffs. ... This team is a bunch of fighters with a tremendous amount of perseverance and fortitude. One thing is for sure. We’ll be back in this position next year.”
Mike Zunino homered and drove in two runs for the Rays, who avoided the ignominy of joining the 2004 New York Yankees, who took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS and lost four straight to the Red Sox. Boston went on to win its first World Series in 86 seasons.
Arozarena set a rookie record with his seventh homer of the postseason. His 21 hits are one shy Derek Jeter’s 1996 rookie postseason record.
Nicknamed “The Cuban Rocket,” Arozarena connected off Lance McCullers Jr. to right-center field at Petco Park with one out in the first.
Margot, who played with the San Diego Padres from late in the 2016 season until being traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason, was aboard after getting hit with a pitch.
Arozarena defected from Cuba to Mexico in 2015, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016 and made his big league debut last year. Traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason, he tested positive for COVID-19 before summer camp and didn’t make his 2020 debut until Aug. 30.
Until he started showing his October power, Arozarena was best known for a gaffe he committed while with the St. Louis Cardinals last postseason. After the Cardinals beat Atlanta in the NL Division Series, he posted manager Mike Schildt’s profane clubhouse rant to social media, not realizing it would get a negative reaction.
Morton held the Astros to two hits in 5 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out six and walking one.
Morton retired 14 straight batters until walking Martin Maldonado with one out in the sixth. George Springer forced Maldonado and took third on José Altuve’s two-out infield single, and Cash pulled Morton after just 66 pitches. Nick Anderson came on and retired Michael Brantley.
“Cash made the right move again — shocker,” kidded ace Tyler Glasnow, now lined up to start the World Series opener.
Morton is the first major leaguer to earn the victory in four winner-take-all games, including Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS against the Yankees when he was with Houston. He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent before the 2019 season and won the wild card game at Oakland last year. The Rays were then eliminated by the Astros in the ALDS.
The Astros broke through against the Rays' bullpen in the eighth. Carlos Correa hit a two-run single off Pete Fairbanks before the reliever struck out Alex Bregman on a 100 mph fastball.
Fairbanks worked around a one-out single in the ninth to close it for a save.
McCullers Jr. lasted only 3 2/3 innings. He allowed three runs and four hits, struck out seven and walked one.
Morton and McCullers became the first pair to pitch in the same winner-take-all postseason game as teammates and later start against each other in a winner-take-all game. In the decisive Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, McCullers started and went 2 1/3 scoreless innings while Morton pitched the final four innings for the victory.
Zunino hit a solo shot into the second deck in left off McCullers with one out in the second and added a sacrifice fly in the sixth. On Friday night, he snapped his bat over his knee in frustration after striking out on three pitches.
Seager homers again, Dodgers force NLCS Game 7 with 3-1 win
ARLINGTON, Texas — Corey Seager homered again, Walker Buehler pitched six scoreless innings and the Los Angeles Dodgers pushed the NL Championship Series to Game 7 with a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.
The Dodgers avoided elimination for the second time in less than 24 hours, and now have a winner-take-all game to try to get to their third World Series in four years. They haven't won a championship since 1988.
“I’m still sort of recovering from this one, but already thinking about Game 7,” manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s what you live for.”
Max Fried took his first loss all year for the Braves, who were trying to celebrate manager Brian Snitker's 65th birthday with the franchise's first World Series since 1999. But the young left-hander worked into the seventh without allowing another run after LA's three-run first.
“Shoot, we’ll go out there and let ’er fly. A Game 7 is another baseball game,” Snitker said. “It’s not fourth-and-1 and let me get the first down. It’s a baseball game. You have to treat it as such.”
Game 7 is Sunday night, with Roberts staying quiet about his starter and the Braves going with rookie right-hander Ian Anderson, who has thrown 15 2/3 scoreless innings in his three postseason starts. The Dodgers could go with Tony Gonsolin or give the ball to Clayton Kershaw on short rest.
Justin Turner also homered for the NL West champions, and Kenley Jansen threw a six-pitch ninth for his 18th career postseason save.
It was Jansen's first save chance in five appearances since closing out the Dodgers’ first playoff win this season in the wild-card round. He struck out the side on 12 pitches in Friday night’s 7-3 win.
“Two huge outings, not only for us, but him personally, you can just see the confidence he has on the mound attacking guys,” Turner said. “That’s the Kenley Jansen I and all of us in there all know and love.”
Fried allowed only two homers in his 11 starts while going 7-0 during the regular season, but the Dodgers went deep twice in three pitches in the first.
Seager pulled a towering shot to right on a 73-mph curveball, and Turner connected on a 93-mph sinker that went 418 feet to straightaway center. Max Muncy walked and scored after back-to-back singles by Will Smith and Cody Bellinger.
Seager, who homered twice in Game 4 on Friday night, has NLCS records with five homers and 11 RBIs, and still a game to play. His six homers overall are already a Dodgers postseason record.
The last batter Fried faced Saturday was Muncy, who struck out for the second out of the seventh. Fried allowed eight hits while striking out five and walking four.
Mookie Betts, the 2018 AL MVP and first-year Dodger, made a leaping catch against the right field wall to end the fifth. While it wouldn’t have been a homer, it robbed Marcell Ozuna of extra bases, and the Braves a likely run.
Betts let out a emphatic shout while pumping both fists, then celebrated with Bellinger while Buehler held his right arm high in the air.
Buehler threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes, allowing seven hits while striking out six without a walk. After Atlanta loaded the bases with three singles in a row to start the top of second — the last hit by his Vanderbilt roommate Dansby Swanson — the right-hander really brought the heat, with 10 consecutive fastballs to get out of the jam.
“It’s unbelievable. You just watch his demeanor now with the bases loaded, first strikeout, calm and collected, second strikeout calm and collected, then he gets out of it, and you see the emotion come out of him after the fact,” Turner said. “His mound presence is just unbelievable.”
Austin Riley struck out on a 98.7 mph pitch before Nick Markakis took a called third strike on 99.7 mph. Cristian Pache, the 21-year-old rookie who had an RBI in each of his first four NLCS starts, was retired on an inning-ending groundout.
It was a much different result than Buehler’s postseason debut two years ago in Game 3 of the NL Division Series, when the Braves also loaded the bases against him in the second inning. After a walk drove in a run, Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a grand slam on the next pitch for a 5-0 lead.
With Buehler out of Saturday’s game, Nick Markakis greeted Blake Treinen with triple to right leading off off the seventh and came home on a one-out double by Acuña.
The Braves had a strange sixth against Buehler, when Ozzie Albies hit a slow chopper down the first base line that was fielded by Muncy, who then made the tag before the ball popped out. Albies thought he was out and never touched first base. Muncy tossed the ball to Buehler, who tagged the runner already heading back to the Atlanta dugout.
Swanson followed with his third single, before a stolen base and throwing error by catcher Austin Barnes sent him to third base. Riley then hit a long, loud foul ball into the upper deck only feet foul in the left-field corner before he struck out.