McCoy: Rays advance to World Series; Dodgers force Game 7 in NLCS

Tampa Bay Rays Randy Arozarena celebrates after hitting a two run home run against the Houston Astros during the first inning in Game 7 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Credit: Ashley Landis

Credit: Ashley Landis

For the second time in their 23-year existence and the first since 2008, the low-budget, high-return Tampa Bay Rays are headed for the World Series.

The Rays cut short the desperate comeback aspirations of the Houston Astros Saturday night with a 4-2 victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

The Rays won the first three games, needing one win in the next four games to make their World Series reservations. The Astros extended it to the limit with three victories before falling Saturday.

Tampa Bay’s life began in 1998 as the Devil Rays and in their first decade they finished last nine times and next-to-last once in the American League East Division.

They dropped the ‘Devil’ from their nickname before the 2008 season and made it to the World Series, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Although the Rays don’t draw well when fans are permitted — they annually finish next-to-last in MLB attendance, they are popular with fans across the nation because they stay relevant with low payrolls, third lowest among 30 teams the last two seasons.

And it was guy named Morton applying some salt for some extra pain to Houston’s dimissal wound. A former teammate, soon-to-be 37-year-old Tampa Bay pitcher Charlie Morton, pitched for the Astros in 2017 when they won the World Series and it was later revealed they illegally stole signs and relayed them to their hitters by pounding trash cans in their dugout.

There is a an old country song called ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.’ Charlie Morton had a good time, but certainly didn’t have the blues while chopping his way through the potent Astros batting order.

He retired 16 of the first 17 Astros he faced and was on a string of 14 straight when he walked Martin Maldonado with one out in the sixth, the first batter on which he went to a three-ball count.

With two outs, Jose Altuve beat an infield chopper toward third, only the second hit off Morton. But with two outs and runners on third and first, manager Kevin Cash went to his bullpen and brought in Nick Anderson to face Michael Bradley, the potential tying run.

Brantley grounded out to second on Anderson’s second pitch to end the mild uprising and preserve a 3-0 lead.

Morton received early home run support from rookie Randy Arozarena and Mike Zunino.

Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. hit Manuel Margot with his first pitch of the game. One out later, Arozarena, a Cuban-born rookie carrying a big, big bat launched a two-run home run, his seventh of the post-season.

Zunino hit a home run off McCullers in Game 2 and matched it with two outs in the second, a 430-foot upper deck rip that would have landed in suburban Escondido, giving the Rays a 3-0 lead.

Zunino’s sacrifice fly in the sixth pushed Tampa Bay’s lead to 4-0.

The Astros finally posed a threat in the seventh on back-to-back one-out singless by Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker, putting runners on third and first. But Anderson escaped when slump-encumbered Yuli Gurriel hit into a double play.

It was the 12th double play turned by Tampa Bay in the series, four of them hit into by Gurriel, who was 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position.

Some drama built in the eighth when the Astros filled the bases with two outs. The batter was Carlos Correa, who hit the game-winning walk-off home run in Game 5. This time he singled on a first pitch from Pete Fairbanks, driving home two runs, cutting the lead in half, 4-2.

With the potential tying runs on base, Alex Bregman struck out on a 100 mph fastball out of the strike zone.

The Astros didn’t go quietly. Gurriel punched a one-out single in the ninth, once again bringing the potential tying run to the plate. Fairbanks struck out Josh Reddick and on the next pitch Aledmys Diaz popped to right field and it was over, Houston’s last hurrah.

***There will be a Game 7 Sunday to determine the National League representative in the World Series to face the Rays.

The Los Angeles Dodgers scored three runs in the first inning and made them stand up for a 3-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves, evening the National League Championship Series at three games apiece.

The Dodgers came out in swing-mode in the first inning against Braves starter Max Fried.

They scored three quick runs, beginning with one-out back-to-back home runs by boiling hot Corey Seager and Justin Turner, Seager’s fifth postseason home run.

And they added one more run in the first on a walk and back-to-back singles by Will Smith and Cody Bellinger.

LA starter Walker Buehler retired the Braves in order in the first on seven pitches. Then the Braves discovered what Buehler is really all about in the second.

The first three Braves — Travis d’Arnaud, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson — all singled to fill the bases with no outs.

Buehler, relying on nothing but unadulerated heat, struck out Austin Riley on three pitches, the last one 99 mph. He struck out Nick Markakis looking at 100 mph and ended the inning on a 0-and-2 ground ball from Cristian Pache.

d’Arnaud and Swanson singled again in the fourth, but with one out Riley lined hard to center and Markakis grounded one back to the mound.

LA right fielder Mookie Betts kept the Braves off the scoreboard in the fifth when he went high up the right field wall to snag Marcell Ozuna’s drive that would have scored a run.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts removed Buehler after six shutouts innings and the Braves broke through for a run against relief pitcher Blake Treinen. Markakis tripled and scored on Ron Acuna’s one-out double.

After giving up three runs and four hits in the first, Atlanta starter Fried held the Dodgers to no runs and four hits over the next 5 2/3 innings. But those three first-inning runs stood up.

That, though, was it for the Braves.

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