Correa’s walk-off homer delivered a 4-3 win at Petco Park on Thursday. Tampa Bay Rays reliever Nick Anderson was on the wrong end of a monster swing. So now, with Game 6 here Friday, with the Rays’ lead trimmed to 3-2, they are no longer sprinting past the Astros on their way to an AL pennant.
After the Rays seemed poised for a sweep a day ago, this is suddenly a series again. Buckle up.
In a game with such weighty stakes, it was as if both managers chose their starters — or, rather, their openers — out of a hat. Luis García, a 23-year-old rookie, went for Houston. Reliever John Curtiss went for Tampa Bay. Garcia had thrown 12⅓ innings above the Class A Fayetteville Woodpeckers. On Wednesday, Curtiss detailed how, when the Rays signed him to a minor league deal in February, no other teams were calling.
How they squared off in the middle of October was a matter of circumstance. Forget, for a moment, that the Rays helped normalize openers around the league. The idea is to use a reliever for two or three innings, often once through the batting order, to decrease a hitter’s look at one pitcher. Matchups are king. A deep staff is required.
But both the Astros and Rays had few other choices. With a possible seven games in seven days, each side had already exhausted four starters. The Astros burned through Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy and Zack Greinke. The Rays used Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough and Tyler Glasnow.
Garcia recorded six outs and stranded the bases loaded in the second. Curtiss lasted four outs after yielding homer on his first pitch to George Springer, the 20th of his postseason career. Then Blake Taylor relieved Garcia and was met by Brandon Lowe.
Lowe knotted the score, 1-1, with a solo blast off Taylor. It came right as large shadows crept across the field, and the whole mound was shaded by the outline of a light tower. That can make it hard for batters to read the seams and spin out of a pitcher’s hand. The ball looks more like a gray blob than a white sphere with red stitching. But the Astros were still able to bully lefty Josh Fleming, who, like Taylor, was first out of the Rays’ bullpen.
Their rally started when Josh Reddick singled and Martín Maldonado cracked a double off the wall. They pushed ahead when Michael Brantley dumped a two-run single in front of right fielder Austin Meadows. Now, after a slight hiccup, Manager Dusty Baker had everything set up: The shadows lingered. Enoli Paredes, one of his better relievers, was in and ready for multiple innings. Andre Scrubb, Houston’s most effective reliever this season, was fresh behind Paredes. Baker just needed a lot to click.
In the fifth, Randy Arozarena tied the rookie record with his fifth homer of the postseason, a lined shot out to right-center. That gave him eight hits in the series and a homer in two straight games. The St. Louis Cardinals threw him into a deal that sent slugger Jose Martinez to the Rays last January. Martinez, though, had just 67 at-bats for the Rays before they shipped him to the Chicago Cubs at the Aug. 31 trade deadline. They soon called up Arozarena from the minors. The rest has become October history.
For his 10th extra-base hit of the playoffs — a Rays’ record — Arozarena turned around a 96 mph fastball from Paredes. He faced one more batter, walking Meadows, and Baker hooked him for Scrubb. The Rays’ bench grew louder. Some 20 hands slapped the padded railing each time Scrubb threw a ball. But he stranded Meadows in the fifth and, once he allowed a two-out single in the sixth, Baker turned to lefty Brooks Raley for the next three outs.
To that point, he had used five rookies to keep the Astros floating. But it was his next move, bringing in Josh James, that knocked his club off course. The Rays small family section stretched across two suites in the second deck. All series, the group had a single synchronized chant amid their frequent cheering. Whenever Ji-Man Choi came up, about four times a contest, the group yelled “JI! … MAN! … CHOI!” into the near-empty stadium. On Thursday, he was the right guy to back.
In his first three at-bats, Choi worked two walks and slapped a single. He was locked in and not chasing much outside the zone. It all led to the eighth, to a showdown of Choi’s swing and James’s high-90s heat. James tried to beat him low and in with a 96 mph fastball. Choi, ahead in the count, used it to knot the game and spark even louder cries of his name.
The Rays needed one more run to take the AL pennant. The Astros needed one to play on.
Then Correa punched Anderson’s high fastball into the chilled evening air. He took a moment to track it, then screamed and flung his bat above his head. Then his teammates rushed the field, made a ring of bodies around home plate and welcomed him after Correa slowed and shot his helmet into the bunch like a high-arcing jumper. Survival was their reason to celebrate.