The most 2020 thing in baseball is the Houston Astros, whose cheating scandal has been the biggest storyline since the last postseason, now being four wins away from returning to the World Series.
That’s despite their GM and manager being suspended by the league and fired. That’s despite losing their two best pitchers — Gerrit Cole to free agency, Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery. And it’s despite finishing with a sub-.500 record and only getting into the playoffs because of the expanded format.
What stands in their way is the Tampa Bay Rays, not exactly the name brand AL juggernaut, but still the No. 1-seeded team on this side of the bracket.
Having knocked out the Yankees, the Rays seem like the heavy favorite. They won 11 more games than the Astros over the 60-game schedule. But this postseason has already shown us not to look past Houston — the Twins have learned, the A’s have learned.
Now we see whether the biggest villains in baseball have another surprise up their sleeve.
Game 1: Sunday, Oct 11, (7:37 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 2: Monday, Oct 12, (4:07 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 13, (Time TBD) (TBS)
Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 14, (Time TBD) (TBS)
Game 5*: Thursday, Oct. 15, (Time TBD) (TBS)
Game 6*: Friday, Oct. 16, (Time TBD) (TBS)
Game 7*: Saturday, Oct. 17, (Time TBD) (TBS)
* if necessary
The entire series will be played at Petco Park in San Diego. Tampa Bay will be the “home team” and bat last in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7.
The Rays did not play the Astros during the regular season due to MLB's limited travel schedule. However, they do have recent postseason history with them. In fact, they were eliminated by Houston in five games in the 2019 ALDS. So the revenge factor is in play for Tampa Bay.
When you’re talking about the Astros in October, the discussion begins with Carlos Correa and George Springer. Their postseason heroics have guided Houston in years past and they’re carrying this team into the ALCS. Correa has knocked in 12 runs in six games this postseason, including four homers. Springer is the engine that makes the Astros go. When October hits, so does he. Springer is not just the Astros franchise leader in postseason homers, he’s already No. 7 on the all-time list.
Randy Arozarena has become a postseason folk hero this October for the Rays. He’s a rookie who rebounded from coronavirus-related delay to his year to have a stellar end of the regular season. But in the postseason so far, he’s been otherworldly. He’s led the Rays with 12 hits and three homers. He’s proven to be a pesky thorn in the side of every opponent, and now the Astros need to have an answer for him.
Not only is Charlie Morton a trusted veteran starter on the Rays staff, he was also a member of the 2017 Astros team that won the World Series — and that later had its sign-stealing scheme exposed. We’ll hear about that storyline, no doubt, but Morton will also play an important role. He’s been great in the postseason across his career. In this no-breaks series, one of the advantages the Rays need to exploit is having a deeper starting rotation. If Morton, who we expect to line up for Game 3, can solve his former team, that’s great news for the Rays. - Mike Oz
Why the Astros will win
Offense: After finishing middle of the pack during the regular season, Houston's offense has erupted during the postseason. Through six games, they've scored 40 runs, hit 13 home runs and posted a .839 team OPS. The most encouraging thing is which players are contributing. George Springer and Michael Brantley have been excellent all season, but now Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are heating up, too. A fully operational Astros offense is a scary thing.
Fresh arms: Without Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to rely on, the Astros have needed some new pitchers to step up. Answering the call have been 26-year-old left hander Framber Valdez and 23-year-old right-hander Cristian Javier. Through two postseason starts, Valdez has allowed just two runs over 12 innings while striking out nine. Javier has been a key bridge reliever, striking out eight in three scoreless appearances covering 6 1/3 innings. Houston's ALCS success may ride on these two arms.
Motivated: Aside from Astros fans, no one wanted this team to reach the ALCS. Based on their record 29-31 regular season record, no one expected it, either. Yet here we are. Houston is four wins away from the World Series and is unquestionably playing its best baseball since the 2019 postseason. The Astros have made one thing clear through their play and their words: The hate and the doubt is fueling them. They are motivated to validate their standing in MLB, and nothing would do that more than returning to baseball's biggest stage.
Why the Rays will win
Deep pitching staff: Tampa Bay’s pitching depth was key to surviving a five-game ALDS with the Yankees, and it will be key again to outlasting the dangerous Astros. Most pitching staffs would be depleted after that Yankees series. As for the Rays, they’ll have former Cy Young award winner Blake Snell ready to go in Game 1. That’s a nice luxury to have. The Rays bullpen is strong too, with Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo leading the way. It’s nice to have that firepower in October.
The unlikely heroes: Every postseason features a fun breakout story. This year it has been Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. Though he went hitless in Games 4 and 5, Arozarena still hit .421 during the ALDS with three homers. He nearly added a fourth, but was robbed by Brett Gardner in Game 5. Another unlikely hero emerged in Game 5 when Mike Brosseau launched the deciding home run against Aroldis Chapman. The majority of Tampa Bay’s roster may be unheralded, but they are fully capable of rising to the occasion.
Revenge factor: The Astros are fueled by redemption. The Rays are fueled by revenge. After all, it was Houston that eliminated Tampa Bay in a thrilling five-game ALDS last season. As the Yankees just learned in this year’s ALDS, the Rays don’t forget. Of course, some might dismiss revenge and emotion as a postseason factor, and they might be right to do so, but there’s no arguing the Rays are focused and determined to reach the World Series. - Mark Townsend
Number to know
19.7 percent: The Astros, even in their perplexing, diminished 2020 form, struck out less than any other lineup during the regular season. The Rays will throw a “stable” of nasty arms at the resurgent offense, but as Jared Diamond pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, few qualities are more indicative of postseason season success than strikeout rate. The team that puts a bat on the ball more often in the age of vicious bullpens and impossible velocity is often victorious. The Rays lineup? They strike out 26.9 percent of the time, second-worst in the majors in regular season. Not that it’s stopped them so far. - Zach Crizer
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