Houston Astros survive to force Game 6 vs. Tampa Bay Rays in ALCS

SAN DIEGO — Carlos Correa may have provided the exclamation point, lacing a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth to keep the Astros’ season alive one more day, but it was manager Dusty Baker’s cool hand that kept Houston in this game, giving Correa a chance for his dramatics.

As the game started, Baker was looking at a deuce, six, eight, jack and queen to play, meaning he really had nothing, except his decades of experience and one of the best poker faces in the game going for him.

On the mound for Houston was rookie Luis Garcia, who had 12 1/3 innings of big league experience, who had never pitched in the postseason and who last stepped on a big league mound 19 days earlier. The next three relievers Baker called on, like Garcia, all made their major league debuts during the truncated 2020 season, and the fifth is still listed as a rookie.

“I’ve been proud of those rookies all year,” Baker said. “They’re becoming veterans in a short period of time.”

This was the equivalent of juggling while on a high-wire. But Baker, the game’s oldest manager at 71, never blinked and pulled off one of the most improbable postseason victories in memory, dealing the Rays a back-breaking 4-3 loss, punctuated by Correa’s game-winner.

The pregame plan was to have Garcia go three innings, or once through Tampa Bay’s lineup. Garcia did get through the Rays’ lineup, but did so in just two innings, both scoreless. From there, Baker called on Blake Taylor, who allowed a solo home run while retiring two batters. Enoli Paredes was next. He also gave up a solo shot, but managed to get five outs.

“They had action going but when it mattered they were only hitting solo homers,” Baker said of the Rays’ three bases-empty home runs.

Baker wasn’t done yet. Andre Scrubb and Brooks Raley, who pitched the past five years in Korea, were called on and combined to get seven outs. In all, Baker squeezed out 6 2/3 innings from five rookies, making three mid-inning pitching changes before turning the ball over to Josh James and Ryan Pressly.

“We don’t have the bullpen veteran presence — no Joe Smith, no [Chris] Devinsky, no [Roberto] Osuna,” Baker said before Game 5. “I got a bunch of kids that had to learn on the job.”

“We don’t treat anyone likes rookies in here,” veteran Michael Brantley said.

What seemed improbable is now fact, there will be a Game 6 in the American League Championship Series after Baker’s Astros have stared down elimination for two straight days. In the history of seven-game series, 38 clubs have taken a 3-0 lead. The 2020 Astros join the 1998 Braves, the ’99 Mets and 2004 Red Sox as the only clubs to force a Game 6.

Suddenly, the Astros’ chances don’t seem so far-fetched. They will now send a fully rested Framber Valdez, who has pitched to a 2.00 ERA in 18 postseason innings this season, to the mound on Friday and have veteran Lance McCullers Jr, who pitched brilliantly in Game 2, set up to start, also fully rested, for a possible Game 7.

Baker’s odds, while still long, don’t seem as impossible as they did after the Astros fell into a 3-0 series hole.

“We get to play another day,” Baker said. “We’re one step closer to getting over that mountain and hurdle that seemed like it was way off in the distance a couple of days ago. I feel good where we are because we don’t have to get on that plane and go to Houston.

“We all want to go to Dallas [for the World Series].”

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