SAN DIEGO — The Red Sox made a smart trade when they sent Manuel Margot and three other prospects to the Padres before the 2016 season for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.
“The best closer in baseball, of course we wanted him. But it was tough to give up a kid like Manuel. We all loved him,” said Eddie Romero, who was vice president of international scouting at the time and is now assistant general manager.
The Padres didn’t fare well in the trade. Margot, a star in the minors, was a middling center fielder for three seasons, then was traded to the Rays for a reliever just before spring training this season.
But on Monday, in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series at Petco Park, all the talent the Sox once saw emerged at a perfect time. Margot clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning and made an amazing catch an inning later as the Rays beat the Houston Astros, 4-2.
Kimbrel helped the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series. Margot has put the Rays two games away from getting their chance to do the same.
“There’s no better human being. I’m thrilled for him,” said Romero, who was busy watching some prospects in person Monday but caught Margot’s highlights.
In August, Margot lost his father, Enmanuel, to COVID-19 and returned to the Dominican Republic for a few days to be with his family.
“You have to stay positive and find a way to move on,” Margot said via an interpreter.
It was around that same time when Romero’s father, Ed Sr. was ill with the virus and not doing well. The former Sox infielder has since recovered.
“Manny took time to call me several times checking up on my dad,” Romero said. "That’s the kind of person he is. He cares about his teammates and their families. He’s got a big heart, a great soul. Genuinely one of the best kids we’ve had.
“Manny’s on another team, one of our rivals, but it goes beyond baseball with him. I’m happy to see what he’s doing. It’s been a long time coming for him.”
The 26-year-old Margot had one home run and 11 RBIs in 145 at-bats for the Rays during the regular season. But he has connected three times and driven in eight runs in eight playoff games.
“Special for him, really special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “That means a lot. He’s been put through the wringer along with other family members. But we made him our family.”
The Astros outhit the Rays 11-4 on Monday. But Houston was 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base, three in the ninth inning when Alex Bregman flied to center to end it.
The Rays are 59 of 285 (.207) in the postseason with 95 strikeouts. But 17 home runs have accounted for 30 of their 38 runs.
Defense turned the game. With a runner on and two outs in the first inning, Ji-Man Choi grounded to the right side. Jose Altuve was perfectly positioned in shallow right field but a low, wobbly throw skipped out of the glove of first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who didn’t make a good effort to hold it.
Altuve was charged with the error. Two pitches later, Margot lined a curveball from Lance McCullers Jr. over the fence in center.
The Rays, conversely, made a series of stellar plays in the field. One of them came with two outs and two on in the second inning when George Springer sent a fly down the line in right field.
Margot tracked the foul ball through the bright sun and caught it with a leaping grab as he tumbled over a chest-high wall and landed with a thud on the concrete below.
“I didn’t know how far down it was,” he said.
Margot bounced up with his glove raised in the air after a leap of faith.
“He sold out,” said Charlie Morton, who pitched five scoreless innings. “These guys want to win for each other and put their bodies on the line.”
Watching from shortstop, Willy Adames was worried about Margot. He shared an apartment with his new teammate when baseball was shut down and they became good friends.
“He knew he was putting himself in danger,” Adames said. “I was a little worried.”
But it proved to be a souvenir-worthy moment.
“I hope they make a T-shirt out of that,” Adames said. “It would be kind of dope. That was unbelievable.”
Margot walked slowly off the field, stretching his back. But there was no way he was coming out the game.
Margot grew up a Red Sox fan and was eager to sign with them. The trade hurt at the time, but he’s come to understand it.
“It’s just part of the business,” he said. “They were looking for some pitching. I’m very thankful for the opportunity for them to sign me originally and give me a chance. Now that I’m here I’m hoping positive things happen and we can continue on in the playoffs and get into the World Series.”