Tampa Bay Rays Are MLB's Playoff Villain Slayer

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2020

Tampa Bay Rays celebrate their 2-1 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in San Diego. The Rays lead the series 1-0 games. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Rays have never won a World Series in their relatively brief franchise history, which dates back to 1998. They snagged a pennant in 2008, but they've yet to hoist a Commissioner's Trophy.

That drought could end soon. After they bested the Houston Astros 2-1 in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday, the Rays are seven wins away from bathing in champagne and confetti.

If they get there, they'll be world champs. But perhaps more importantly, they'll be villain slayers.

The story begins with Tampa Bay's takedown of the New York Yankees in the division rivals' ALDS showdown. 

The Rays won the American League East by seven games over New York, yet they fell behind the powerful Bronx contingent 1-0 in their series after a 9-3 Game 1 thumping.

Tampa Bay rebounded to win the next two contests, however, and ultimately took the series with a 2-1 victory Friday.

The deciding blow came courtesy of Mike Brosseau.

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Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman brushed Brosseau back with a 101 mph fastball on Sept. 1. That led to a benches-clearing incident and stoked the flames between the Yanks and Rays, as Bleacher Report's Scott Miller outlined:

"Chapman riled the Rays by either headhunting or impersonating a headhunter—take your pick—a furious Tampa Bay manager in Kevin Cash unleashed a quip for the ages, warning that 'I've got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour. Period.' The insinuation was that the Rays could exact their own revenge, and Tampa Bay's relievers soon had that put on to T-shirts they were wearing around."

Brosseau delivered his revenge in fence-clearing fashion Friday and sent the Yankees packing. It was a cathartic haymaker for him and Tampa Bay, and it represented a David-and-Goliath moment as the club with MLB's No. 28 payroll downed the biggest spenders on the block.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

With that done, Tampa Bay is training its gaze on the 'Stros.

You know the narrative by now. Houston was busted by the league for stealing signs in its 2017 World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It cost the franchise its manager and general manager, multiple first- and second-round draft picks and irreparable damage to its reputation.

No one outside hardcore Houston boosters was rooting for the Astros in 2020. They finished 29-31 and limped into the playoffs sans injured ace Justin Verlander. 

After sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Round and defeating the Oakland Athletics in a hard-fought division series tussle, though, the Astros entered the ALCS with a head of steam.

Shortstop Carlos Correa offered a succinct statement to the haters after Houston beat the Twinkies.

"I know a lot of people are mad," he told reporters. "I know a lot of people don't want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?"

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

One likely ubiquitous answer: Go Rays.

The Rays answered the call with Sunday's nailbiting win. They overcame an early 1-0 deficit after Jose Altuve's first-inning homer, scoring in the fourth and fifth innings to eke out a victory thanks in part to another home run from postseason legend-in-the-making Randy Arozarena.

Above all, their arms and glove work carried the day, as they so often have this season.

"We take pride in our pitching and our defense," catcher Mike Zunino, who drove home the winning run with a single in the fifth inning, told reporters. "It came up big for us today, got us out of some jams. We work hard on it. It's good for it to show."

Here's what the Rays really showed: They can vanquish villains. Now, they're three wins away from knocking the Astros out of the playoffs and making much of the baseball world happy.

Whether they'll win their first World Series remains to be seen. The champagne is on ice; the confetti has yet to fall.

Game 2 is Monday, with ex-Astro Charlie Morton set to go for Tampa Bay against Lance McCullers Jr. Expect more twists and turns.

No matter what, the Rays have put the Astros on notice. They're positioned for a deep run. They're a small-budget hopeful with a well-calibrated slingshot.

Villains, watch your backs.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.