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SAN DIEGO — Manuel Margot always dreamed one day he’d have a game like this in a postseason game at Petco Park, hitting a home run one inning, and making a spectacular catch the next in front of his hometown fans.
He just thought it would be in a San Diego Padres’ uniform.
Well, there may have been no fans Monday, and he was playing in a different uniform, but he’ll take it, leading the Tampa Bay Rays to a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros. The Rays, who have never won a World Series, now have a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
Margot, who had spent the previous three seasons in San Diego before being traded in February to the Rays, was a one-man highlight reel.
He didn’t even think he would be batting in the first inning when Ji-Man Choi hit a routine grounder to second baseman Jose Altuve with two outs. Yet, Altuve short-hopped the throw to first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who dropped it, and casually took his foot off the bag, allowing Choi to reach base.
Margot, who was moved up from seventh to fifth in the lineup, calmly ripped Astros starter Lance McCuller’s 86-mph curveball over the center-field fence for a three-run homer. McCullers turned around and stared in disbelief, unable to fathom it traveled 406 feet.
“We didn’t think that ball was gone,’’ Astros manager Dusty Baker said on the TBS telecast.
Manuel Margot rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
Well, one inning later, there was that man again, this time, making one of the most dazzling catches. Astros leadoff hitter George Spring hit a long fly ball to right field, Margot ran 102 feet over to the railing, leaped into the air, caught it at the peak of his jump, crashed into the top of the wall, and tumbled into the stands.
He stood up and showed his glove with the ball to right-field umpire Manny Gonzalez. Out!
“That was unbelievable,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
Here’s a guy who hit only one home run in 47 games during the regular season, and suddenly has three homers in eight postseason games. He’s the first player in Rays’ history to hit more homers in the postseason than the regular season.
“He came up big for us in the wild card series and ALDS with some big home runs,’’ Cash said. “He’s just a good player. Manny is such a complete player. I like to have him out there.’’
Manny proved to the difference in the game with the Rays failing to get a hit off McCullers after the third inning, and the Astros continuing to rip the cover off the ball, only with little to show for it, stymied by a slew of defensive gems by shortstop Willy Adames, third baseman Joey Wendle and first baseman Choi.
Astros third baseman Alex Bregman was victimized all game by defensive brilliance and positioning, hitting balls 106.8-mph, 103.1-mph, 103-mph and 99.5-mph, and coming away without a hit in four plate appearances.
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McCullers was brilliant for the Astros, yielding just four hits and striking out 11 without a walk, retiring 14 consecutive batters at one point, but could never overcome the sloppy error that led to Margot’s three-run homer. The Astros committed the fewest errors (20) in the major leagues this season, but now have made the most this postseason (five).
The Astros have squandered two fabulous pitching performances, with their starters yielding just eight hits and three earned runs with 19 strikeouts over 13 innings this series (2.08 ERA), but here they are trailing, 0-2, with the starting pitching matchups favoring the Rays the next two games.
Meanwhile, the Rays’ mastery continues in close games, going 28-10 this season in games decided by two or fewer runs, showing unbelievable fortitude and moxie.
The way the Rays are playing, they are moving closer to that elusive World Series title
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