The Tampa Bay Rays escaped from the brink on Saturday, reaching their second World Series with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in San Diego.
The Rays, who had the A.L.’s best record in the abbreviated regular season, at 40-20, had been in danger of joining the 2004 Yankees as the only teams in baseball history to lose a best-of-seven series after taking a 3-0 lead. The Astros came up one win short, leaving the Boston Red Sox as the only team to complete such a comeback.
Tampa Bay’s only previous World Series appearance came in 2008, when the Rays fell in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies. They will face the winner of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves.
Though the Rays had dropped Games 4, 5 and 6, they had reason to be confident in Charlie Morton, their Game 7 starter. Morton is the team’s most experienced player, with 13 seasons in the majors, and he won Game 7 in the A.L.C.S. and in World Series in 2017 — when he was with the Astros, of all teams.
He looked sharp on Saturday, working five and two-thirds innings while allowing two hits and striking out six. Randy Arozarena, the sport’s breakout October star, slammed a two-run homer off Lance McCullers Jr. in the first inning, giving him his seventh postseason home run — the most ever by a rookie.
Catcher Mike Zunino added a solo homer in the second inning and drove in another run with a sacrifice fly in the sixth — runs that proved crucial after the Astros scored twice in the eighth on a Carlos Correa single.
The Rays also took a winner-take-all game in the division series, eliminating the Yankees despite an overwhelming difference in payrolls. The Yankees spend more on player salaries than any other team, while the Rays ranked 28th of 30 clubs this year, ahead of only Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
But they thrive with a deep roster of players with specific strengths, expertly deployed by Manager Kevin Cash, who frequently changes lineups and pitchers to get the right matchups. The Rays’ airtight defense repeatedly robbed hits from the Astros early in the series, and timely home runs from their hitters gave them just enough offense to win.
The Rays’ victory saves Major League Baseball the uncomfortable scene of welcoming the Astros to the league’s showcase event. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, but an M.L.B. investigation in January confirmed that players had stolen opposing catchers’ signals from a television monitor at home games throughout the regular season and postseason, alerting hitters to the coming pitch by banging on a trash can near the dugout.
The scandal outraged many fans and players, and while the Astros organization was fined and docked draft picks — and the team’s former general manager and manager were suspended and then fired — the Astros players were not punished, as part of their agreement to cooperate with M.L.B.’s investigation.
They qualified for the expanded postseason despite a 29-31 record in the regular season, but could not overcome the Rays — and Morton, their former teammate.