Tampa Bay Rays' Mike Zunino breaks his bat after striking against the Houston Astros during the fifth inning in Game 6 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Springer, Valdéz help Astros top Rays 7-4, force ALCS Game 7

Springer, Valdéz help Astros top Rays 7-4, force ALCS Game 7

SAN DIEGO — The blowback from a sign-stealing scandal three years ago and a losing record during the pandemic-shortened regular season don’t mean a thing to Dusty Baker and the Houston Astros.

Like them or loathe them, the Astros are on the cusp of a third World Series in four seasons and joining the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only teams to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series.

George Springer and José Altuve delivered big hits, Framber Valdéz pitched six brilliant innings and the Astros beat the Tampa Bay Rays for the third straight time, 7-4 Friday to force a deciding Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

It’s been a stunning turnaround in a series that had been going the Rays’ way as they opened a 3-0 lead.

“We’re not through writing history,” Baker said. “We’re hoping we can have a happy ending to this historic season and historic year.

“This team’s battled back big time,” added Baker, hired to bring some stability to a team rocked by a sign-stealing scandal it used en route to the 2017 title that was uncovered last off-season. “You’ve got to love this team, or some people hate this team, but I mean you’ve at least got to respect this team, the way that they’ve worked.”

Houston chased starter Blake Snell in the fifth before Springer hit a go-ahead, two-run single and scored on Altuve’s double. Carlos Correa, who hit a walkoff home run in Thursday night’s 4-3 win, added an RBI single.

“We’re relentless and when we said we didn’t want to go home, we really meant that,” Correa said. “We want to keep playing baseball and we don’t want this to be the end of our season. We took care of these three games and now we’ve got to take one more. If we don’t win that game, then it’s all meant nothing. We’ve got to go out there tomorrow and get that win. It’ll be great.”

Earlier this week, some of the Astros watched a documentary on the 2004 Red Sox, who after falling behind 3-0 won four straight games to stun the New York Yankees for the AL pennant before winning their first World Series in 86 seasons.

Otherwise, big league clubs leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven post-season series are 37-1.

Houston also is trying to become the first team to win a pennant with a losing regular season record (29-31). The Astros have been criticized for their role in a cheating scandal en route to the 2017 title that was uncovered last off-season.

Manuel Margot homered twice and drove in three runs for the Rays. Despite blowing a 3-0 series lead, they remain one win from the second World Series in franchise history — and one loss from joining the 2004 Yankees in ignominy.

Game 7 on Saturday night will feature the pitchers who started and finished Houston’s Game 7 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. Lance McCullers Jr. will go for the Astros while 36-year-old Charlie Morton is expected to start for the Rays.

They are the first pair to pitch in the same winner-take-all post-season game as teammates and later start against each other in a winner-take-all game.

In the decisive Game 7 in 2017, McCullers started and went 2 1/3 scoreless innings while Morton pitched the final four innings for the victory. Morton signed with Tampa Bay prior to the 2019 season.

It’s also a rematch of Game 2 of this series, won 4-2 by Morton and the Rays.

“We’ve just got to bounce back,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “This isn’t the scenario that we wanted leading 3-0, but this is a resilient group. Encouraged that the offence kind of got going there. Look for some carryover.

“There’s no doubt the momentum has shifted, but I would bet on this team being very capable of bouncing back,” he said.

Valdéz, who lost the opener of this series 2-1 to Snell, held the Astros to one run and three hits while striking out nine and walking three in his third career post-season start. He allowed Willy Adames RBI double in the second.

Astros closer Ryan Pressly pitched for the third straight day and got three outs for his second save to go with a win in Game 5. He allowed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo’s one-out single, then induced Mike Brosseau’s game-ending double-play grounder, a call upheld in a video review. Pressly threw nine pitches, all for strikes, raising his three-day total to 39.

The 71-year-old Baker, who led NL teams for the first 22 seasons of his 23-year managerial career, used some old-school baseball to outfox the 42-year-old Cash and overturn a 1-0 deficit in the fifth. The rally had only one hard-hit ball. The Astros had been frustrated in the first three games when they scalded balls right to fielders.

Snell walked Yuli Gurriel opening the fifth and allowed a single to Aledmys Díaz on his 82nd pitch. Cash, whose team was built around analytics, pulled Snell before he could face the No. 9 batter, Martín Maldonado, and leadoff hitter Springer, who had struck out twice.

Maldonado laid down a sacrifice bunt against Diego Castillo and Springer punched a two-run single to centre through a hole in Tampa Bay’s drawn-in infield that also was in a shift. Altuve followed with a double into the left-field corner that brought in Springer, who might have been out if Brandon Lowe had thrown to the cutoff man instead of second base.

After Michael Brantley walked, Correa singled to bring in Altuve.

Snell allowed two runs and three hits in four-plus innings, struck out four and walked four.

Baker, hired after AJ Hinch was fired following the revelation of the sign-stealing scandal, is the first manager to take five different teams to the playoffs. He has yet to win a World Series as a manager. His San Francisco Giants reached the 2002 Fall Classic before losing in seven games to the Angels. As a player, he helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win four straight World Series games in 1981 after falling behind the New York Yankees 0-2.

Houston’s Kyle Tucker homered off rookie Shane McClanahan leading off the sixth. In the seventh, Brantley hit an RBI single and Tucker a sacrifice fly.

Margot homered off Andre Scrubb leading off the Rays’ seventh and hit a two-run shot off Cristian Javier with two outs in the eighth.

“We’re all frustrated, but I don’t think they’re tensing up,” Cash said. “I think they recognize we’ve got an opportunity for the fourth time to do something special and find ways we can really compete, get the bats going, score some runs for Charlie and find a way to win.”

MODERN BALL

There were 33 pitches in the top of the eighth, and none put in play, The Astros loaded the bases on three walks and then had three strikeouts. Baker said they were lucky that inning didn’t come back to haunt them.

UP NEXT

Astros: McCullers struck out 11 in seven innings in taking the loss in Game 2. He allowed four runs, only one earned, and four hits.

Rays: Morton pitched five scoreless innings in winning Game 2.

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Bernie Wilson, The Associated Press

Baseball

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