There will be a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series, with a lot of it due to some old-school manipulations by 71-year-old Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker.
A rarity in these days of analytics baseball, the sacrifice bunt, pried open a four-run fifth inning that launched the Astros to a 7-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
With the ALCS tied at three games apiece, the Astros and Rays play a winner-goes-on and loser-goes-home game Saturday. And the winner advances to the World Series.
It was Houston’s third straight win after losing the first three and the world was saying eulogies over the Astros.
The Astros are only the second team in postseason history to lose the first three games and come back to force a Game 7.
The other was the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who lost the first three to the New York Yankees in the ALCS. The Red Sox won Game 7, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Houston third baseman Alex Bregman queued up video of the 2004 AlCS and forced his teammates to watch the Red Sox' Phoenix-like rise from the ashes after losing the first three games.
“That was an inspirtational,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa after contributing three hits. "Bregman showed us the clip. We’re only the second team to force Game 7, so that’s very special.
“We’re relentless, we keep coming,” said Correa. “We said we didn’t want to go home and we meant it. We forced Game 7 and now we have to take care of business tomorrow or all this meant nothing.”
Baker, who has taken five different teams to the postseason, also went against the current modus operani of major league managers by permitting his rookie starting pitcher to go deep into a game.
Framber Valdez, a 26-year-old left hander with a mind-bending curveball, pitched seven high-octaine innings — one run, three hits, one walk, nine strikeouts (all on curveballs.)
The Astros were down 1-0 in the fifth when the first two batters reached base. The sacrifice bunt has gone the way of the Edsel in baseball these days, but Baker had No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado put down a bunt.
It worked when the next four Astros reached base, three on hits, for a four-run game-deciding eruption.
In the first two innings, Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell was in search of strikes. He faced seven hitters and went to three-ball counts on five. He walked three and gave up one single.
As usual, though, his defense was his armor and the Rays turned double plays in both innings to keep the Astros off the scoreboard.
Snell, though, threw 42 pitches in those two innings, 21 strikes and 21 balls.
Valdez features a knee-buckling curveball in the 80 mph range. He led the MLB this season on strikeouts via the curveball.
He struck out the side in the second, but those strikeouts were sandwiched around a one-out single by Brandon Lowe, who was 2-for-40 at the time, and a two-out run-scoring double off a fastball by Willy Adames to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. The Rays were 30-6 when scoring first this season.
Houston’s Michael Brantley, a hitting automaton, singled to start the fourth, extending his postseason hitting streak to 10. The Astros did no damage because Snell retired the next three.
Snell walked Yuli Gurriel, the third time in five innings the Astros put the leadoff man on base.
This time it paid a four-run dividend.
When Aledmys Diaz shot a single to left field, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash quickly went to his bullpen and brought in Diego Castillo, one of his ‘A’ relief pitchers.
Then came Maldonado’s dinosaur bunt, moving the runners to second and third.
And it worked for two runs. George Springer pushed a two-run single to right field — against the shift. Jose Altuve pulled a double to left and Springer sprinted home from first when left fielder Lowe missed the cut-off man and the Astros owned a 3-1 lead.
Castillo threw a wild pitch, walked Brantley and Carlos Correa singled to left to push the lead to 4-1.
Kyle Tucker greeted Tampa Bay relief pitcher Shane McClanahan with a leadoff home run in the sixth and Houston’s lead expanded to 5-1.
Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz injected some spice into festivities in the sixth. With one on and one on, Diaz drew a 3-and-2 walk. But he seemed upset that Valdez threw him a curveball, a pitch on which Valdez struck out Diaz earlier in the game.
Before taking first base, he yelled some words at Valdez before taking first base. Valdez had the last word, a silent word, when he coaxed an inning-ending double play from Lowe.
Manny Margot hit a solo home run in the seventh and a two-run home run in the eighth to make it 7-4 and give the Rays a sniff of a chance for a comeback.
The two Margot home runs forced Baker to go to his closer, Ryan Pressly for the ninth, pitching in his third straight game for the first time this season.
Pressly struck out Joey Wendle on three pitches. Pinch-hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo singled. But it ended when Mike Brosseau hit into a double play.