McCullers, Astros aim to even series with Rays

In the series opener, the Astros finished 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 base runners total.

Astros Carlos Correa against Twins MLB Playoffs
Sep 30, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Michael Brantley (23) celebrates with shortstop Carlos Correa (1) after scoring a run in the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros slugged their way to the American League Championship Series, flexing their offensive might by scoring 33 runs and bashing 12 homers against the Oakland Athletics.

By most every measure, the Tampa Bay Rays would present a more formidable challenge for the Houston offense, and in Game 1 on Sunday at Petco Park in San Diego, the Rays lived up to their advanced billing by limiting Houston to a first-inning Jose Altuve solo home run in a 2-1 win that enabled Tampa Bay to grab a 1-0 series lead with Game 2 set for Monday at Petco Park.

The Rays went 14-5 in one-run games during the regular season and eliminated the New York Yankees by the same 2-1 score last Friday to close that AL Division Series. The Rays finished second in the AL in ERA (3.56), and Houston is aware that runs might be a scarce commodity.

In the series opener, the Astros finished 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 base runners total. When they manufactured prime scoring opportunities in the fourth and eighth innings, the Astros squandered them by hitting into double plays that squelched those rallies.

“It’s disappointing but those guys have a good pitching staff,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We hit some balls good. Opportunity is the name of the game. If you keep getting opportunities, sooner or later you’re going to come through. But if you don’t get any opportunities, you don’t have a chance.

“It hurts to lose these one-run games. They’re good in these one-run games, but I just knew that we were going to pull it out.”

The Astros will look to even the series behind right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. (3-3, 3.93 ERA during the regular season), who is 1-0 with a 3.25 ERA over 12 career postseason appearances (five starts). He labored but did not factor into the decision in his lone start this postseason, allowing five runs (four earned) on eight hits and one walk with five strikeouts over four innings in the Astros’ 10-5 win over the Athletics in Game 1 of the ALDS. This will mark McCullers’ first appearance against the Rays after he missed last season following elbow surgery.

The Rays will counter with right-hander Charlie Morton (2-2, 4.74 ERA), the winning pitcher in the Astros’ Game 7 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, a game started by McCullers. Morton earned the win against the Astros in Game 3 of the 2019 ALDS, allowing one run on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts over five innings. He is 5-2 with a 3.50 ERA in 10 career postseason appearances (nine starts) with Pittsburgh, Houston and the Rays.

For his career, Morton is 4-6 with a 6.28 ERA in 11 starts against the Astros.

Given the schedule awaiting both teams, with the best-of-seven series contested without any breaks, pitching depth will be paramount. The Rays have a distinct advantage in that regard and showcased that edge in Game 1 with four relievers hurling four scoreless innings in support of starter Blake Snell, who wobbled a bit yet limited the Astros to one run over five solid frames.

“Pitching-wise we have a lot of guys that are very ready for this moment,” Snell said. “It’s exciting.”

In Game 1, relievers Aaron Loup and John Curtiss emerged from secondary roles and delivered.

“Certainly our team recognizes that guys maybe not called upon in the five-game series are now going to be called upon,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We definitely have the confidence to send them out there and there was an example of that with (Loup) and John Curtiss.”

–Field Level Media