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Astros rekindle memories of ’04 Red Sox in ALCS

SAN DIEGO — The 2020 Houston Astros, meet the 2004 Boston Red Sox. You two have much in common and could soon be the only members of an incredibly exclusive club.

With Friday’s 7-4 win, the Astros have joined those Red Sox as the only clubs in major league history to force a Game 7 after trailing a best-of-seven series by three games. Does history have room for a second club to fully overcome the daunting deficit? We will learn on Saturday, when Game 7, seemingly an impossible thought several days ago, will now take place.

Those Red Sox famously vanquished the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, accomplishing what often had been talked about but never had been done. There have been 38 times a club has taken a 3-0 series lead, and these are the only two times a Game 7 has taken place.

Before Game 5, as inspiration, Alex Bregman had several Astros teammates watch the ESPN documentary of the ’04 Red Sox’s improbable accomplishment. Now they’re living inside their own biopic.

“We are relentless, and when we said we didn’t want to go home, we really meant it,” Carlos Correa said. “But if we don’t win one more then this all has meant nothing. When we were down three games the atmosphere in the clubhouse was the same as if we were up 3-0.”

During his pregame Zoom interview, manager Dusty Baker said all the pressure was on his Astros because they still needed to win two games, to the Rays’ one. But he added, if Houston could win Game 6 then the pressure would be even for Game 7. After blowing a 3-0 series lead, the pressure is mounting on Tampa Bay. If history is an indicator, then the pressure has eased considerably on the Astros.

“Our execution was improving and things were trending in the right direction, offensively, defensively and pitching,” said Bill Mueller, a member of that 2004 Red Sox club that eventually went on to win the World Series. “Things were clicking. Our confidence was rising and you wanted to rise with it because we all knew this was something that had never been done before. Momentum is a real thing.

“I would say that when you keep winning and there are no letups and no cracks, you have an understanding that their side wasn’t as high as when they were up 3-0. We had a relentless pursuit. I hope the Astros do it because it’s a wonderful feeling. You want other people to feel such an accomplishment. That’s something that will never go away in your legacy. It’s pretty special.”

On the flip side is what the Rays must be feeling. Tanyon Sturtze was a member of the 2004 Yankees, who like those Red Sox, will equally live in history — but on the other side.

“We knew Game 7 was going to be tough for us and it was over real quick,” said Sturtze, referencing Boston’s six-run lead in the second inning. “Hopefully they start talking about this one more than us in 2004. You tell the Astros that Tanyon says to win so we won’t have to be the only ones mentioned for blowing a 3-0 lead.”

Tampa Bay has reached this point because its offense, which normally does just enough to win games, has been mostly missing in action. Yes, the Rays have cracked nine home runs in this series, but six have been with no one on base.

“They are frustrated, we are all frustrated,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t think they are tensing up. I think they are recognizing that we have an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special.”

All eyes turn to the starting pitchers for Game 7. Charlie Morton for Tampa Bay and Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr., former teammates, faced off in Game 2 with McCullers pitching the better game. But he was unable to overcome a throwing error by Jose Altuve in the first inning that led to a Manuel Margot three-run home run and an eventual 4-2 Rays victory.

Morton is no stranger to postseason games. He has a 6-2 record in 10 postseason starts and was a part of the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship club, one that is tainted because of the cheating scandal that subsequently was revealed.

“We’re not through writing history and I am hoping we can make it and have a happy ending to this historic season and historic year,” Baker said. “There’s been a lot of famous deaths, the coronavirus, living in the bubble. This team has battled back big time. You have to love this team. Some people hate this team, but you at least have to respect this team and the way they’ve worked.”

Another similarity the ’04 Red Sox and ’20 Astros share is a manager who never lost his cool and rode his veterans and his instincts to victories, the analytical script be damned, something for which former Red Sox manager Terry Francona is known. Baker showed as much, calling on a rare sacrifice bunt in the fateful fifth inning. Analytics disregard giving up outs. This one moved runners to second and third, and both scored when George Springer singled through the Rays’ shift that left an opening where the second baseman would normally play. Houston never trailed again.

Baker was asked after the game by Spanish-speaking media to rank this game in the context of his career.

“This is the biggest victory in all of my career,” Baker said in Spanish. “I am so happy for all of the Astros. We have many people behind us now, but I want to be even happier [after Game 7].”

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