McCoy: Rays lean on bullpen -- again -- to win first game of ALCS

As the Houston Astros discovered to their dismay Sunday night, it isn’t healthy to be behind the Tampa Bay Rays after seven innings.

They never lose.

And they didn’t lose in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, a 2-1 victory.

They haven’t lost a game they led after seven innings all season due to a bullpen full of live and deadly arms, the ultimate Protection Society. The streak now stands at 58 straight games.

On this night in San Diego’s Petco Park, the bullpen protected that one run lead over the last four innings.

And it included a bases loaded and one out dilemma in the eighth inning, a threat that ended with one pitch from Diego Castillo — a double play hit into by Yuli Gurriel.

Four Rays relief pitchers — John Curtis, Ryan Thompson, Aaron Loup and Castillo — held the high-octane Astros to no runs and two hits over the last four innings.

The Rays started 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and he worked overtime, throwing 105 pitches to get through five innings. He gave up one run and six hits, then turned a 2-1 lead over to the bullpen.

And the bullpen protected it like a pack of pit bulls.

It wasn’t as if the Astros didn’t face opportunities. They left 10 on the basepaths and were 2 for 8 with runners in scoring position.

The Astros struck quickly against Snell as No. 2 hitter Jose Altuve drove one out of the park for a 1-0 lead. And the Astros made Snell extend himself, forcing 29 pitches in the first inning.

Altuve’s home run off Snell was no shocker. It was the fourth home run he has hit off Snell in 16 career at bats.

That, though, was the last time the Astros put a spike on home plate.

Houston starter Frambert Valdez faced the minimum nine hitters in the first three innings, with the help of a double play and a caught stealing.

He struck out the side in the first, then issued a leadoff walk in the second to Yandy Diaz. But Willy Adames hit into a double play.

Kevin Kiermaier doubled with one out in the third, then was caught trying to steal third base.

The Astros put four runners on base in the fourth ... and didn’t score. Alex Bregman doubled and Carlos Correa walked to open the inning.

Kyle Tucker lined into a double play, then Snell walked Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Diaz reached on an infield hit to fill the bases. Snell escaped on Martin Maldonado’s fly to right.

Tampa Bay drew even in the fourth when Randy Arozarena cleared the center field wall for a game-tying home run, 1-1.

The Rays took a 2-1 lead in the fifth when Valdez walked Willy Adames to start the inning. Adames moved to second and third on back-to-back ground balls to the mound and scored on Mike Zunino’s two-out single — the game-winning single, as it turned out.

The Rays are 17-4 when Zunino catches and he made sure they got that 17th win with his first-pitch single.

Snell needed 105 pitches to cover five innings and ws replaced in the sixth by Curtis. Bregman opened with a single and reached third on a ground ball and a wild pitch.

Curtis walked Gurriel on four pitches with two outs  the inning ended when Aledmys Diaz dribbled the first pitch in front of the plate, leaving it 2-1 for the Astros.

Houston starter Valdez was still on the mound in the sixth and tempted trouble with a pair of walks, but worked free of damage by retiring Manny Margot on an inning-ending ground ball.

The Astros went to their bullpen in the seventh with Blake Taylor and Kiermaier led with a double. With No. 9 hitter Zunino at the plate, the Astros did not try to bunt Kiermaier to third. And he died at second when three teammates struck out.

Rays manager Kevin Cash went to Loup for the eighth inning, even though he hadn’t pitched in 12 days. He hit a batter on his first pitch, struck out Bregman, then gave up a walk and a single to fill the bases with one out.

In came Diegro Castillo. . .to throw one pitch to Gurriel. It was a 4-to-3 inning-ending double play, a miraculous escape act.

Castillo was back for the ninth and gave up a one-out single to pinch-hitter Josh Reddick, putting the potential tying run on base. George Springer grounded to first and the runner moved to second.

That left it up to Altuve, the man who homered in the first inning for Houston’s only run. He was 0 for 6 for his career against Castillo. Now he is 0 for 7. . .he struck out on a bad pitch to end the game.

The Rays led baseball this season in one-run victories, none bigger than this one.

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