San Diego – Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays — with big assists from two former Padres who know Petco Park’s outfield well — are one win from the second World Series appearance in franchise history.
Joey Wendle hit a go-ahead, two-run single two batters after another critical error by Jose Altuve, and the Rays rallied for a 5-2 win against the Houston Astros on Tuesday night that gave them a 3-0 lead in the AL Championship Series.
Kiermaier, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center field, saved several runs for the Rays with two outstanding catches before leaving with a hand injury. Hunter Renfroe, acquired from the San Diego Padres last December, made two terrific grabs in right.
Towering righty Tyler Glasnow, who grew up just north of Los Angeles, will try to complete the sweep and deliver the Rays their first pennant in 12 seasons Wednesday night when he opposes Zack Greinke.
Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Tampa Bay player, said it was “an amazing feeling” to be so close to going to the Fall Classic.
“I knew that this group would be capable of getting to this point. I had no doubt in my mind,” the 30-year-old Kiermaier said, praising everyone from the front office to the coaches to the players. “This is what it’s all about. I’m so proud to be a part of this and have so much fun with these guys.”
Renfroe thinks the Rays have a good chance of closing it out Wednesday night.
“We’ve got Glas up there. I think he’s pumped for it, and I think we’ll have a good show,” said Renfroe, who came up big with his bat and glove two nights after striking out four times.
Tampa Bay reached the World Series in 2008 but lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“There’s a very confident mindset with this group,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ll stay consistent and do everything we can behind Glasnow to make plays.”
The innovative Rays had one of baseball’s lowest payrolls during the pandemic-shortened season and still finished with the AL’s best record at 40-20. They often have a different player come up big every night, whether it’s a batter or reliever — or sometimes both. They’ve also played spectacular defense.
“Our defense is just good. We’ve played just tremendous defense all season long,” Cash said. “It’s a credit to the guys how hard they work at it.”
The Astros got into the postseason with a 29-31 record before going 5-1 to reach the ALCS. But they’ve looked nothing like the team that won the AL pennant two of the last three seasons and they remain villains in many peoples’ eyes for their sign-stealing scandal three years ago en route to a World Series title.
After Diego Castillo pitched the ninth for his second save, stranding two baserunners, he clapped his hands and the Rays celebrated with their usual handshake line.
“We’re in a good spot, but we’re not counting anything yet. We know we have another ballgame to win,” Wendle said.
The Astros fell apart in the sixth, when the Rays sent 11 batters to the plate and scored five runs on four hits, two hit batters and Altuve’s error at second base. One of the runs was unearned.
Losing pitcher Jose Urquidy held Tampa Bay to two singles through five scoreless innings before Randy Arozarena singled leading off the sixth. Brandon Lowe hit a grounder to Altuve, who went for a routine forceout but short-hopped the throw and it skipped past shortstop Carlos Correa and into left field.
Enoli Paredes replaced Urquidy, and Yandy Diaz singled to load the bases. Wendle lined a single off third baseman Alex Bregman’s glove to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.
Manuel Margot, whose three-run homer in Game 2 followed the first of Altuve’s two errors, laid down Tampa Bay’s first sacrifice bunt of the season. Paredes hit Kiermaier on the hand to load the bases and then grazed Willy Adames on the pinkie with another pitch to bring in another run.
“A nightmare inning,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Renfroe, who like Margot began his career with the Padres, flared a pinch-hit double into right to bring in two more runs.
Renfroe and Margot were traded to the Rays in separate deals last offseason.
“That big hit has been eluding us the whole series,” Baker said. “It seems like they get whatever they want.”
Left-hander Ryan Yarbrough pitched into the sixth for the win, holding the Astros to two runs and three hits while striking out five and walking two.
Yarbrough allowed Altuve’s homer in the first inning, his second of the series. Michael Brantley’s homer to left leading off the sixth chased Yarbrough.
Altuve has 17 career postseason home run, tying teammate George Springer for most in franchise history.
Two batters after Altuve’s shot, Bregman missed a home run by a matter of inches as Kiermaier made a leaping catch of his drive near the top of the fence in center.
Altuve also homered in the first inning of the opener, a 2-1 Rays win.