SAN DIEGO – By now, every baseball fan has heard of remarkable rookie Randy Arozarena. They're fast becoming familiar with his World Series-bound Tampa Bay teammates, too.
“You sit here and look at this group of guys, and I always say we don’t have a lot of household names, but at the same time, people are making a name for themselves right now,” outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
They kept doing that in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series on Saturday night.
Arozarena homered again, 36-year-old Charlie Morton was brilliant against his former team and the Rays silenced the Houston Astros 4-2 to reach the World Series for just the second time.
The Rays will face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves in the World Series in Arlington, Texas, starting Tuesday night. Game 7 of the NLCS is Sunday night.
Right fielder Manuel Margot squeezed Aledmys Diaz’s flyball in his glove for the final out and fireworks burst overhead as the Rays began to celebrate the AL pennant in an NL ballpark, a byproduct of the pandemic-shortened season.
“If you don’t know the name by now, they better learn them, because we’ve we got some boys who can play,” said Kiermaier, the Rays' longest-tenured player.
That would start with Arozarena, who set a rookie record with his seventh home run — a two-run shot in the first — and was chosen ALCS MVP.
“Randy Arozarena, I don't have any words to describe what he's done, what he's meant to us this postseason,” manager Kevin Cash said. “For him to have a bat in his hand with an opportunity for a big home run, really, I think it settled a lot of people in the dugout. It certainly did me.”
Arozarena, a relative unknown before the postseason, has brought power and some serious dance moves to the Rays.
“I wouldn't say I was chasing MVP, but I was just trying to do everything for the team, anything to allow us to win,” the 25-year-old left fielder said through a translator.
Arozarena did Cristiano Ronaldo’s famous goal celebration after his homer and again after receiving the MVP. Eight nights earlier, he threw down a breakdancing move to win a dance-off with Brett Phillips while the Rays celebrated their AL Division Series win against the New York Yankees.
Tampa Bay’s only other World Series appearance was in 2008, when it lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.
The innovative Rays led the AL with a 40-20 record in the pandemic-shortened season. Known for their pitching and defense, they also introduced the concept of the starter and sometimes deploy a four-man outfield.
Tampa Bay snapped a three-game losing streak and prevented the Astros from matching the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the only major league team to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series.
“The last three days were pretty agonizing,” Cash said.
The Rays also kept the Astros from becoming the first team to win a pennant with a losing regular-season record (29-31).
The loss ended Houston's first season since its sign-stealing scandal was revealed. The Astros were viewed by many fans as villains for their role in the cheating scandal en route to the 2017 title against the Dodgers, a scam that eventually cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs.
Under new manager Dusty Baker, the Astros were trying to reach the World Series for the third time in four seasons. They lost Game 7 to Washington last year.
“It’s frustrating, but these guys fought. They fought to the very end," Baker said. "A lot of people didn’t have us even making the playoffs. ... This team is a bunch of fighters with a tremendous amount of perseverance and fortitude. One thing is for sure. We’ll be back in this position next year.”
Mike Zunino homered and drove in two runs for the Rays, who avoided the ignominy of joining the 2004 New York Yankees, who took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS and lost four straight to the Red Sox. Boston went on to win its first World Series in 86 seasons.
Arozarena set a rookie record with his seventh homer of the postseason. His 21 hits are one shy Derek Jeter’s 1996 rookie postseason record.
Nicknamed “The Cuban Rocket,” Arozarena connected off Lance McCullers Jr. to right-center field at Petco Park with one out in the first.
Margot, who played with the San Diego Padres from late in the 2016 season until being traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason, was aboard after getting hit with a pitch.
Arozarena defected from Cuba to Mexico in 2015, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016 and made his big league debut last year. Traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason, he tested positive for COVID-19 before summer camp and didn’t make his 2020 debut until Aug. 30.
Until he started showing his October power, Arozarena was best known for a gaffe he committed while with the St. Louis Cardinals last postseason. After the Cardinals beat Atlanta in the NL Division Series, he posted manager Mike Schildt’s profane clubhouse rant to social media, not realizing it would get a negative reaction.
Morton held the Astros to two hits in 5 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out six and walking one.
Morton retired 14 straight batters until walking Martin Maldonado with one out in the sixth. George Springer forced Maldonado and took third on José Altuve’s two-out infield single, and Cash pulled Morton after just 66 pitches. Nick Anderson came on and retired Michael Brantley.
“Cash made the right move again — shocker,” kidded ace Tyler Glasnow, now lined up to start the World Series opener.
Morton is the first major leaguer to earn the victory in four winner-take-all games, including Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS against the Yankees when he was with Houston. He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent before the 2019 season and won the wild card game at Oakland last year. The Rays were then eliminated by the Astros in the ALDS.
The Astros broke through against the Rays' bullpen in the eighth. Carlos Correa hit a two-run single off Pete Fairbanks before the reliever struck out Alex Bregman on a 100 mph fastball.
Fairbanks worked around a one-out single in the ninth to close it for a save.
McCullers Jr. lasted only 3 2/3 innings. He allowed three runs and four hits, struck out seven and walked one.
Morton and McCullers became the first pair to pitch in the same winner-take-all postseason game as teammates and later start against each other in a winner-take-all game. In the decisive Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, McCullers started and went 2 1/3 scoreless innings while Morton pitched the final four innings for the victory.
Zunino hit a solo shot into the second deck in left off McCullers with one out in the second and added a sacrifice fly in the sixth. On Friday night, he snapped his bat over his knee in frustration after striking out on three pitches.
Arozarena is only one homer away from matching the major league record of eight homers in any single postseason. Barry Bonds set the mark for San Francisco in 2002, and it was tied by Houston’s Carlos Beltran in 2004 and Texas’ Nelson Cruz in 2011. Arozarena is only the ninth player ever to homer seven times in a single postseason, all of them occurring since 1995 in the wild card era.
Rays: Three-time Gold Glove Award-winning CF Kiermaier was back in the lineup. He missed three starts after being hit with a pitch on the left hand in Game 3.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports