Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2020

For One Night, Almost Everyone Was A Rays Fan

Wow, that was a close one, wasn’t it, Rob Manfred? When the baseball commissioner pushed for an expanded field in the 2020 playoffs as a way to generate more television revenue and help mitigate the losses inflicted on all thirty franchises by the pandemic-shortened regular season without fans in ballparks, having one of the World Series contestants be a team that couldn’t manage a winning record over the sixty-game schedule surely wasn’t part of the plan. Nor could having every game of the Fall Classic be a reminder to viewers of the Houston Astros cheating scandal that was the major story of the last offseason be a result that Manfred, who would very much like to put that debacle in the rear view mirror, would have welcomed. But as the American League Championship Series gradually stretched to its full potential of seven games, that undesirable outcome appeared more and more likely.

Such a dire result, which would have hardened sentiment against Manfred pretty much everywhere beyond the 713 area code, seemed quite remote early in the series. For three games the Tampa Bay Rays, fresh off their vanquishing of AL East rival New York in the ALDS, continued their winning ways with victories over Houston. It was the Astros, of course, who were the not entirely welcome guests at Manfred’s contrived postseason party. By expanding the field for the playoffs from five to eight teams in each league, the plan gave not just the winner but also the second place club in each division a ticket to the postseason irrespective of its record, as well as two other teams with the next best records among those not already qualified.

But opening the Great Game’s tournament to more than half of major league franchises greatly increased the possibility that a team would slip in despite having a losing record. That proved true in the National League, where the Milwaukee Brewers gave new meaning to the term “next best record” by qualifying as the eighth and last seed with 29 wins against 31 losses. And it happened in the American League as well, where the AL West turned out to be Oakland and everyone else. The A’s finished 36-24 to win the division with ease since no other club managed to climb above .500. Among the Astros, Mariners, Angels, and Rangers, Houston was the least bad, completing the regular schedule two games under water at 29-31. Second place is second place though, and in this season that was sufficient to advance to the playoffs.

Under the playoff structure and 162-game schedule of any other season, equivalent results would have left the Astros missing the postseason by 16 games, also known as a country mile. In 2020 it meant they were headed off to Minnesota for a first-round best-of-three series against the AL Central winning Twins. Interestingly, Houston’s regular season record was produced by dominance at Minute Maid Park, where the team finished 20-8, more than offset by an abysmal performance on the road, where the Astros record was 9-23, the largest home versus away differential in the majors. Hopefully, the coming offseason will be free of any headlines revealing that this statistic is anything more than interesting.

Houston’s road woes led some pundits to predict an early exit against the Twins, but Minnesota has won exactly one postseason series since its championship season of 1991, and entered the playoffs having not won so much as a game in the postseason since 2004, a streak of sixteen straight losses. Soon enough the streak was eighteen, and the Astros were on to face the A’s in the ALDS. Oakland’s postseason travails rival those of the Twins, with the A’s defeat of the White Sox in the Wild Card round the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2006, when Oakland had the good fortune to play Minnesota. So perhaps the continuation of the Athletics’ October torment should have been expected, with Houston advancing to the ALCS three games to one.

With a 40-20 regular season record, second in the big leagues only to the Dodgers, and defeat of the Yankees in five games in the ALDS, Tampa Bay appeared to be a more formidable opponent. Rays’ victories in three straight low-scoring contests confirmed that. Then in Game 4, Astros manager Dusty Baker went to the mound in the 6th inning, intent on removing starter Zack Greinke. But the Astros were ahead 4-2, and Greinke made it plain he wasn’t ready to leave. That convinced Baker to leave his star pitcher in, and left pundits applauding the “old school” move when Houston went on to victory. One night later the Astros started and ended the game with home runs, a leadoff by George Springer and a walkoff by Carlos Correa. Then Houston built a big lead in the middle innings of Game 6, and suddenly all the stories were about Boston’s 2004 comeback against New York, the only time a team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit.

Despite the losing regular season record and the cheating scandal, the Astros are an elite team, even after the loss of two pillars of the starting rotation – Gerrit Cole to free agency and Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery. Indeed, the collective talent of the Astros has always made their reliance on the combination high tech and low comedy sign stealing employed during their 2017 championship run so perplexing. But it is also true that the scandal remains fresh in the minds of fans, all the more so because the strictures of this season meant the faithful of opposing teams didn’t have the chance to vent their anger with boos and catcalls when the Astros came to town.

That’s why Tim Kanter, a transplanted White Sox fan working for a software company in San Diego with an office overlooking Petco Park, became a hero to many when he used a megaphone that was easily heard on the field to call out Astros players by name during Game 4. Kanter also denounced Manfred, saying “We condemn Rob Manfred’s unwillingness to hold players accountable for bringing shame to our beautiful sport. Remember, cheating is wrong. Please do not cheat.”

Despite Kanter’s efforts, the Astros went from the brink of being swept to the edge of history, before the Rays came to the rescue of fans everywhere – well, everywhere except the Gulf Coast of Texas – Saturday evening. If Dusty Baker won by making an old school move in Game 4, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash prevailed by sticking to the Rays’ reliance on modern metrics in Game 7. Starter Charlie Morton had been brilliant, but in the 6th inning he was about to go through the Astros batting order for the third time. That was the signal for Cash to go to his bullpen, and he did so without hesitation. Tampa Bay 4, Houston 2. The Rays are in the World Series. The Astros are going home, where, for now, they belong.

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