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 berth in franchise history.
Joey Wendle hit a go-ahead, two-run single two batters after another critical error by José Altuve, and the Rays beat the Houston Astros 5-2 on Tuesday night for a 3-0 lead in the AL Championship Series.
Kiermaier, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center field, saved multiple 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 a pair of terrific grabs in right.
“We’ve played just tremendous defense all season long,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s a credit to the guys how hard they work at it.”
Towering righty Tyler Glasnow, who grew up just north of Los Angeles, will try to complete the series sweep and deliver the Rays their first pennant in 12 years Wednesday night when he opposes Zack Greinke in Game 4.
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.”
Tampa Bay reached the World Series in 2008 but lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“There’s a very confident mindset with this group," 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. It seems a different player comes up big every night, whether it's an unsung hitter or reliever — sometimes both. They've also played spectacular defense.
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 years and they remain villains to many for illegal sign stealing en route to the 2017 World Series title.
Houston 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 José 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 tried for a routine forceout but short-hopped the throw and it skipped past shortstop Carlos Correa 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 a 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.
“That big hit has been eluding us the whole series,” Baker said. “It seems like they get whatever they want.”
Renfroe came up big with his bat and glove two nights after striking out four times. He and Margot, who also made a sensational catch in Game 2, were traded to the Rays in separate deals last offseason.
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.
Diego Castillo pitched the ninth for his second save, stranding two runners.
“We’re in a good spot, but we’re not counting anything yet. We know we have another ballgame to win,” Wendle said.
Altuve has 17 career postseason home runs, tying teammate George Springer for the most in franchise history.
Altuve also homered in the first inning of the opener, a 2-1 Rays win.
Two batters after Altuve’s shot, Bregman barely missed a home run as Kiermaier made a leaping catch of his drive near the top of the fence in center.
“We’re not happy that we’re down 0-3, I’ll tell you that. But at the same time, we’re going to bring great energy tomorrow," Correa said. "We’re going to go down swinging, and we’re going to go down playing our brand of baseball. Whatever happens, we’re going to do it as a team.”
Besides his leap to rob Bregman, Kiermaier made a diving catch of Correa’s liner with two runners on to end the third. Renfroe made a diving grab of Springer’s sinking liner to end the seventh. With the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, Renfroe also made a sliding basket catch of Kyle Tucker’s shallow fly ball.
“Taking a run away is just as valuable as driving one in," Kiermaier said.
THE CUBAN ROCKET
Arozarena, who defected from Havana to Mexico in 2015, doubled in the third for his eighth extra-base hit this postseason, one shy of tying Melvin Upton Jr. and Evan Longoria, both in 2008, for the most in a single postseason in Rays history. Arozarena has four homers this postseason.
Rays: Kiermaier exited with a bruised left hand after getting hit by the pitch in the sixth. X-rays were negative.
“Try to be hockey tough in these kind of situations, but we'll see how my recovery process goes,” he said.
Rays: The 6-foot-8 Glasnow (2-0, 4.05 ERA) will make his fourth start of the postseason. He beat the New York Yankees 7-5 while striking out 10 in Game 2 of the AL Division Series and then started the clincher Friday night and went 2 1/3 innings on just two days’ rest.
Astros: Greinke (0-0, 5.19) will be making his third start this postseason and the 19th playoff start of his career. He experienced a sore arm during the ALDS against Oakland but said he should be fine.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports