SAN DIEGO — It was not until Manuel Margot’s feet left the ground that it occurred to him that he might fall. The Rays right fielder had played more than three seasons in Petco Park as a Padre, but he played every inning of his tenure here in center. He was not entirely sure of the contours of the right field wall. He was not entirely sure what lay on the other side of it. He was only sure that he wanted to catch the fly ball slicing toward him.
There were men on second and third with two outs and the top of the Astros’ order due up in the second inning when George Springer lofted a sinker down the first-base line. Margot, positioned straight-up in Petco’s generous right field, darted 102 feet to his left, using his glove to shade his eyes from the sun, and, just as he leaned over the fence, snared the baseball. That was when he realized he could not stop leaning. He was dismayed to learn that while the wall rises perhaps three feet from the field, the walkway on the other side is more like six feet below it. He braced himself with his left hand. He shot his right into the air. Umpire Manny González made the out sign.
When it was over and the Rays had beaten the Astros 4–2 to take a 2–0 lead in the American League Championship Series, Margot was asked to reflect on what will surely be the grab of the playoffs. Which did he prefer, the defensive gem or the three-run homer he had hit an inning earlier to give Tampa Bay a lead it would not relinquish?
“Definitely the home run,” he said, laughing, through interpreter Manny Navarro. “The home run didn’t hurt.”
That was more than Margot acknowledged at the time. His friend and roommate, shortstop Willy Adames, sprinted to right field to check on him. “I’m good, I’m good!” Margot insisted. Adames decided not to counter that Margot was bleeding from a cut on his leg.
“I hope they make a t-shirt of that,” Adames said afterward. “That would be kind of dope.”
The Rays have their pick of designs. Four batters before Margot’s catch, Adames flung himself to his left to catch, backhanded, a liner off the bat of Carlos Correa for the first out. In the outfield, Margot pantomimed kowtowing in appreciation. An inning later, Adames dove to his left, backhanded another ball and fired to first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who did a split to corral the throw. In the fifth, as shadows encroached on the infield, third baseman Joey Wendle launched himself to his left and made the long throw to Choi, who did another split. They repeated the play in the eighth. In the end, the Astros hit 16 balls harder than 95 mph. The Rays turned 11 of them into outs.
The slick glovework helps to camouflage an offense that struggles to string hits together. It also makes pitchers’ lives easier. Tampa Bay starter Charlie Morton, who threw five scoreless innings and threw 34% sinkers, designed to induce ground balls, called it a “tremendous luxury” to play before such an airtight defense. “It allows you a ton of freedom to just pitch your game with some semblance of reckless abandon,” he said.
Houston provided a foil. Righty Lance McCullers “outpitche[d] me by a mile,” said Morton, but he watched over and over as his defense let him down. Twice second baseman José Altuve and first baseman Yuli Gurriel failed to turn a routine grounder into an out. The first time, in the first inning, came with two on and two out. The next batter, Margot, swatted a knuckle curve beyond the center field wall.
The second miscue, an ugly throw from the shift in the third, did not end up costing them. And Altuve successfully fielded a grounder to end the frame. But he looked so despondent as he trudged off the field that Astros manager Dusty Baker pulled him in for a hug as he reached the dugout stairs. Altuve and Correa, the shortstop, conferred, and the next time Houston shifted, they switched positions to give Correa the harder assignment.
“How do you win close ballgames?” said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash afterward. “You gotta make plays.”
The Rays have been outhit 19–10 in the series so far. But they have made all the plays, and lead it 2–0.