That final step towards a World Series return again proved elusive for the Tampa Bay Rays Friday night. After carefully nursing a slim 1-0 lead through the early innings, the Rays lost control of the game in the fifth, eventually dropping Game 6 to the Houston Astros by a 7-4 margin. After jumping ahead to a 3-0 series lead, the Rays have now lost three consecutive games, pushing themselves the brink of elimination and the ignominious feat of joining the 2004 New York Yankees as the only teams in baseball history to blow such a series advantage in the playoffs.
Offense has been at a premium in the ALCS, and initially, it looked like this game would be no exception, with four batters in the first inning going down on strikes. Blake Snell’s first inning was a glimpse into how the rest of his afternoon would go: he was effective on paper, but the Astros were downright stingy at swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, forcing him to work hard for his outs.
While the broadcasters talked about shadows more often than Gandalf did in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (yesterday’s were of the non-Sauron variety), Framber Valdez‘s primary weapon in Game 6 was his extraordinarily effective curveball. Despite the Rays being the second-most effective offense against bendy pitches in 2020, Valdez didn’t fear matching strength vs. strength, throwing the pitch more than half the time; when the Rays offered, they missed nearly two-thirds of the time. Hunter Renfroe’s futile attempts to hit the offering were great examples of what has made 2020 Valdez an upgrade from the 2019 edition: behind 3-1 against the former Padre, he dropped two beautiful curves in just about the perfect place to induce unsatisfying swings.
The 15 whiffs Framber earned on just his curveball matched the total numbers of swings-and-misses induced by Rays pitchers for the entire game. Valdez threw six effective innings, striking out nine and leaving with the lead and in position to get the credit for the win. If the Astros fail to advance in Saturday’s winner-take-all Game 7, none of the blame will fall on his shoulders. While the trash can scheme casts an unsurprisingly long shadow over the team, one of its positive stories this fall has been Valdez’s excellence in absolutely crucial situations. In four postseason games, he is now 3-1 with only five earned runs allowed in 24 innings against 26 strikeouts.
As for Snell, after a hard-fought first, the Astros continued to grind out at-bats, resulting in a lot of deep counts and, as a result, making him throw a lot of pitches. As a team, the Astros didn’t swing and miss at a single four-seamer or changeup thrown by Snell outside the strike zone. Houston couldn’t solve his slider or curve — most teams don’t — but they successfully squeezed an excellent pitcher until he was forced out of the game.
Snell’s manner of exit has proven controversial in some of the autopsies of the game. Despite not having any earned runs allowed on the ledger, the left-hander was pulled in the fifth after allowing a leadoff walk to Yuli Gurriel and a single to Aledmys Díaz. Kevin Cash called on Diego Castillo, who had been very effective up until this point in the postseason, striking out 10 batters in 7 2/3 scoreless innings. This wasn’t one for Castillo’s highlight reel, though; the Astros racked up three hits, an additional walk, and four runs before a double play ended the inning.
Naturally, a quick hook on your former Cy Young starter is a move that’s going to occassionally backfire, and the move is, as might be expected, receiving a good bit of second-guessing. However, I think the criticism is unwarranted in this case. While I’m not dogmatically insistent that managers yank a quality starter because they’re about to face the opposing lineup for the third time, there were some real reasons to think it was the right move here. First, Snell’s shown a stronger than usual tendency to struggle when facing a lineup for the third time; batters have hit about 150 points of OPS better against him the third time through the first, whereas a typical starter experiences a gap of about 70 to 80 points. Second, it wasn’t as if Cash shut down a pitcher who was cruising; the Astros were making Snell fight tooth-and-nail for his outs. Gurriel, not exactly known for his patience at the plate, wasn’t the least bit tempted by Snell’s nibbling en route to his walk. In a brutally high-leverage situation — the difference between a win and a loss here was roughly a fifth of a World Series championship — I’d rather send out a fresh reliever to face the top of the order than Snell.
Three runs is hardly an insurmountable lead, but the Rays were never truly in the game again after this point. Shane McClanahan came in throwing hard and was hit in kind, allowing three runs on five hits in his 1 2/3 innings of work, including a home run by Kyle Tucker; all five of his hits had exit velocities in excess of 100 mph. The Rays did chip away at some of Houston’s 7-1 lead, or more precisely, Manuel Margot chipped away at it, hitting home runs off Andre Scrubb and Cristian Javier.
The Rays now go to a Game 7 they never expected to have to play, hoping to avoid the fate of those 2004 Yankees. To stop Houston, Tampa will likely turn to Game 2 starter Charlie Morton, a key member of the 2017-2018 Astros. The ZiPS projections still have the Rays as the favorite by a 58%-42% margin, but that’s a far cry from the 3.8% chance the computer gave the Astros after Game 3.