SAN DIEGO — Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman is a student of baseball history. His paternal grandfather, Stan, was general counsel of the Washington Senators and worked closely with Ted Williams.
So when the Astros lost the first three games of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Bregman gathered a few teammates in the clubhouse at Petco Park to watch highlights of the 2004 Red Sox and their comeback against the Yankees.
The Sox are the only team in major league history to come back from a 3-0 deficit. Bregman wanted to make the point that it was possible to defy the odds.
The Astros haven’t lost a game since. Their 7-4 victory on Friday forced Game 7 on Saturday night.
The ’04 Red Sox were lovable idiots who shocked the dynasty Yankees of Derek Jeter and Joe Torre. The Astros, convicted in January of cheating en route to a World Series championship in 2017, are hardly a sympathetic lot.
But for a segment of baseball traditionalists, there’s satisfaction seeing 71-year-old Astros manager Dusty Baker outmaneuver the number-crunching and cold-blooded Rays.
“This team has battled back big-time. You’ve got to love this team,” Baker said. “Well, some people hate this team. But I mean you’ve at least got to respect this team I think.”
Houston will start Lance McCullers against Charlie Morton in a rematch of Game 2. The righthanders were Astros teammates from 2017-18 and remain close friends.
McCullers started Houston’s Game 7 victory in the 2017 World Series against the Dodgers with Morton finishing. Now they’ll face each other with the season on the line.
The Astros with one more victory would be the first team with a losing record during the regular season to play in the World Series, which starts in Arlington, Texas, on Tuesday.
A sacrifice bunt, the bane of analytics, helped fuel a four-run fifth inning for Houston.
Tampa Bay lefthander Blake Snell, erratic throughout his start, walked Yuli Gurriel with a 1-0 lead before Aledmys Diaz singled.
Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to Diego Castillo, one of his late-inning relievers, in the belief that this was a pivotal moment in the game. Snell said later he didn’t want to leave the game.
Martin Maldonado bunted the runners over. Then, with the Rays in a shift that left a hole on the right side, Springer rolled a single through the gap and two runs scored.
“That was perfect by George,” Baker said.
Jose Altuve drove in Springer with a double that bounced off the fence in left field. After a passed ball, Carlos Correa singled to drive in Altuve.
Prior to that inning, Tampa Bay relievers had stranded all 21 runners they inherited during the postseason. The two runs charged to Castillo were his first in 11 career postseason appearances.
“Gut-wrenching,” said Cash of watching his decision backfire.
Down 4-1 and seemingly still in the game, the Rays turned to Shane McClanahan in the sixth inning. The rookie had not pitched since Oct. 7 in a low-leverage situation during the Division Series.
It was another bad bullpen move. Kyle Tucker homered in the sixth, then the Astros added two more runs in the seventh. Correa had an RBI double and Tucker a sacrifice fly.
Rays pitchers walked nine, their most in any game this season.
Tampa Bay was sixth in the American League in runs per game during the regular season. Their success has been fueled by run prevention.
The Rays have creatively used their pitching staff and been precise in how they’ve aligned their defense.
But at some point the offense has to help and the Rays aren’t giving their pitchers much room for error. They had two runs through seven innings on Saturday before Manuel Margot hit a two-run homer, his second of the game.
The Rays are hitting .199 in the series and have struck out in 37 percent of their at-bats.
Lefthander Framber Valdez went six innings and surrendered one run for the Astros. He allowed three hits and struck out nine.
Valdez exchanged words with Tampa Bay first baseman Yandy Diaz after walking him in the sixth inning. As the umpires kept the two players apart, Correa came over and spoke assertively to Valdez before going over to Diaz and settling him down.
Baker, despite using seven pitchers to get through Game 5 on Thursday, has his staff in good shape for Game 7 thanks to Valdez.
But the Rays could have an edge with Morton, who is 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 11 postseason games. He has started two playoff games this season and allowed one run over 10 innings.
But the Astros, like the ’04 Red Sox, are feeling like a team of destiny.
“We’re not through writing history,” Baker said.