SAN DIEGO (AP) — Managed by universally acclaimed good guy Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros remain villains in many people’s eyes for their sign-stealing scandal three years ago.
The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, are a fun-loving bunch that makes the most of their small payroll, including the best record in the American League in the pandemic-shortened season.
The Astros, who got into the playoffs with a losing record, and Rays meet in the postseason for the second straight year beginning on Sunday night, this time in the AL Championship Series at Petco Park.
The Astros are in the ALCS for the fourth straight year, looking for a third trip to the World Series in that span. The Rays are trying to get to their second World Series after losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.
It's a matchup of left-handers in Game 1, with Houston's Framber Valdez opposing Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner.
The Astros are 5-1 in the playoffs after going 29-31 in the regular season. They eliminated AL West champion Oakland in four games in the ALDS at Dodger Stadium.
“Our team understands that in the playoffs, you start over. You start fresh and go from there,” said George Springer, MVP of the 2017 World Series.
The Rays went the distance in the ALDS against the New York Yankees, advancing with a 2-1 victory Friday night on Mike Brosseau’s dramatic eighth-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman.
The Rays lost to Houston in five games in the ALDS last year. The Astros then lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees via free agency, and Justin Verlander is out after he had Tommy John surgery.
“We respect how talented they are, but they are the team we (took) to Game 5, and we fell short,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “That experience probably helped us get to where we are right now, and the irony is that we’re playing them again now over seven games.”
Here are some things to look for:
Baker, 71, is the first manager to lead five different franchises to the postseason, but is still chasing his first World Series title at the helm. He was hired by the Astros in January to replace A.J. Hinch, who was fired in the wake of the team’s cheating scandal. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed last year that Houston had used a camera in center field to steal signs and signal hitters on which pitches to expect by banging on a garbage can.
Baker’s San Francisco Giants lost to the Angels in seven games in the 2002 World Series. As a player, he helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win the Fall Classic in 1981.
Cash, a Tampa native, is in his sixth season managing the Rays. The former big league catcher played parts of eight seasons with five teams, including 20 games with the Astros in 2010.
Houston shortstop Carlos Correa has made it clear that the Astros have no remorse about the sign-stealing scandal that helped carry them to the 2017 World Series title against the Los Angeles Dodgers. So far, he’s been able to back it up on the field.
“It starts with their shortstop. Seems like he’s always in the right position,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said after the Astros eliminated the A’s. “Can’t get anything by him. He’s got a terrific throwing arm and really was an igniter for them the whole series, both offensively and defensively. He showed up offensively at the right time. He’s a great player. When you’re talking about a lot of shortstops in the league, a lot of the good defensive ones, he’s right there at the top.”
Tampa Bay outfielder Kevin Kiermaier is glad Houston doesn’t have Cole and Verlander, and hopes fans pull for the Rays against the Astros after the cheating scandal.
“No one has forgotten what they have done or chose to do in years past,” Kiermaier said. “They have to live with that, but we want to end their season this year, doing everything our way and beating them at our game, and that’s pitching the heck out of it, scoring runs in many different ways, using our guys from the top to bottom of our lineup and seeing if we can make that happen.”
Tampa Bay's run includes several compelling stories, like the road to the playoffs for Randy Arozarena and Brosseau.
Arozarena defected from Cuba in 2015 and missed the first five weeks of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. Nicknamed “The Cuban Rocket,” he homered in each of the first three games of the ALDS against New York.
After their thrilling win Friday night, the Rays celebrated in front of their dugout. Arozarena and fellow outfielder Brett Phillips had a dance-off. Phillips did a backflip and Aronzarena respond with a breakdancing move that had his teammates going wild.
Brosseau went undrafted in 2016 and then signed with the Rays for $1,000. His home run Friday night, which capped a 10-pitch at-bat, sent the Rays’ dugout into a frenzy.
“That was hands down the greatest moment I’ve been a part of in baseball,” Cash said.
Springer called it “an at-bat for the ages. That was a great professional at-bat. ... That’s what the playoffs are about. An at-bat like that, a grind like that, it was a crazy at-bat to watch.”
The Astros hit 12 home runs in beating the Athletics in four games at Dodger Stadium. The Rays hit 11 in five games at Petco Park.
AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham and Janie McCauley contributed.
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