It is on to the league championship series now, with the Rays punching the fourth and final ticket with a dramatic 2-1 win over the New York Yankees at San Diego’s Petco Park, thanks to a solo homer by utility man Mike Brosseau off legendary Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the eighth inning. Tampa Bay will face the Houston Astros in the ALCS beginning Sunday, also in San Diego.
The Yankees will check out of MLB’s Southern California bubble and go home — still looking for their first trip to the World Series since they won it all in 2009 — but not before co-authoring an epic contest punctuated by one of the cruelest endings imaginable Friday night.
Brosseau’s go-ahead homer came at the end of a tense 10-pitch at-bat against Chapman, the flame-throwing lefty who has been on the mound for some of baseball’s most memorable October finishes. It came on a 100-mph fastball, which followed a 99-mph fastball. When it cleared the wall in left, it touched off a wild celebration in the Rays’ dugout, which then regrouped — and erupted again when right-hander Diego Castillo secured the final, clinching out.
“Hands down,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said, “the greatest moment I’ve been involved in in baseball.”
A game entering its fourth hour, a pitchers’ duel in which the fastballs went from fast to faster to fastest as the innings went by, arrived with one out in the eighth at Brosseau vs. Chapman — an undrafted, unheralded backup who saw time at six different positions in 2020 vs. the highest-paid closer in history. It also was a moment of karma: Earlier this season, when they last saw each other, Chapman fired a 101-mph fastball at Brosseau’s head, touching off a benches-clearing standoff and resulting in a suspension for Chapman.
“The revenge aspect was not a thought in my mind,” said Brosseau, whose homer came in just his fifth plate appearance of this postseason. “We put that in the past and moved on. It was straight to business.”
Largely because of their lowest-in-the-majors payroll, their paltry attendance figures and their lack of superstar names, the Rays are often treated like some sort of Cinderella who should be glad just to be here instead of the model of efficiency and consistency they are — with six 90-win seasons between 2010 and 2019 and, this year, a division title and the best record in the AL.
The entire Rays lineup, one through nine, may have earned a little more than half what Yankees ace Gerrit Cole did for this season. But this was no upset.
The Rays went 40-20 this season, a 108-win pace when extrapolated over 162 games, and beat the Yankees in eight of their 10 regular season meetings. And on Friday night, in the biggest game of their season, the Rays matched the Yankees’ more heralded arms pitch for pitch. The trip to the ALCS is Tampa Bay’s first since 2008, when it reached the World Series before falling to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The game saw only six base hits combined, and all the game’s runs were scored on solo homers, with Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Rays right fielder Austin Meadows trading blasts in the middle innings and Brosseau breaking the tie with his drive to left against Chapman in the eighth.
If you didn’t have a 99-mph fastball or some sort of demonic, wipeout, secondary pitch — or, more likely, both — you had no business getting anywhere near the Petco Field mound Friday night. Baseball, or at least the discipline of pitching, reached some sort of evolutionary milestone in this Game 5, its tale told on the radar-gun readouts. According to MLB.com, 61 percent of the fastballs thrown Friday night came in at 97 mph or above, with an average of 97.2.
It underscored the fundamental difference between the teams that the Yankees, facing a winner-take-all Game 5, could give the ball to the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history — ace right-hander Gerrit Cole, a former No. 1 overall pick earning $36 million this season in the first year of a nine-year $324 million deal — and let him go until he got tired, while the Rays resorted to trying to match him inning for inning with a parade of talented but low-paid arms.
Cole took the mound Friday night in the road grays of the Yankees, pitching against a team from St. Petersburg, Fla., in a stadium in downtown San Diego, for the chance to face his old team, the Houston Astros, in the ALCS, also in San Diego — the sort of convoluted geography that was only possible in the chaotic, pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
While Cole, pitching on short rest for the first time in his career, lasted 5⅓ innings for the Yankees, the Rays, among the most innovative franchises in the game, cobbled together outs in painstaking fashion.
The Rays had 12 pitchers start games for them this season and 12 pitchers record saves — including four who did both — but with their season on the line, they streamlined things and turned to only their very best arms, every last one of them seemingly possessing unhittable stuff.
Tyler Glasnow, starting on two days’ rest, operated as an “opener,” giving way after seven outs in favor of Nick Anderson, arguably the best reliever in baseball this season. Anderson gave the Rays eight outs, then turned it over to Peter Fairbanks for six. All three were acquired via trades when the Rays, as is their operating model, sold off expensive veterans for younger, cheaper pieces. Castillo, a homegrown product signed out of the Dominican Republic, locked down the final six outs.
“It was kind of the perfect ending to that series,” Glasnow said of the way the Rays cobbled together 27 outs with unconventional deployments. “That’s the philosophy of our team.”
The ALCS didn’t get the sexy matchup Fox Sports executives and New Yorkers were undoubtedly hoping for. A Yankees-Astros matchup would have marked the third time in four seasons those teams met in October with a World Series berth at stake.
But in the Tampa Bay Rays, the ALCS got the team it deserved and the team that deserved to go. It took five nights to prove it and one memorable swing of Mike Brosseau’s bat in the 44th of those 45 innings. But regardless of payrolls or star power, on Friday night the better team won.