SAN DIEGO — All postseason, Randy Arozarena has seemed to know what was coming, crushing fastballs and breaking balls, high pitches and low pitches. So it made sense that he was celebrating his American League Championship Series MVP award before anyone actually informed him that he’d won it.
TBS’s Lauren Shehadi had not even finished saying the name of the trophy on the table next to her when Arozarena began jumping up and down.
“He already knows!” she said, laughing. “Get up here! Randy Arozarena!”
The Rays took Game 7 of the ALCS 4–2 over the Astros, and more than anyone else, Arozarena got him there. He may have enjoyed the show more than anyone else, too.
“My favorite player is Randy Arozarena,” he announced in Spanish before Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
He became a phenomenon for his clutch hits—six times this postseason he has given his team either the tie or the lead, including a first-inning home run on Saturday—and for his personality. He competed in dance-offs after big wins. He designed a home run celebration patterned after Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal dance. Arozarena stomped around in cowboy boots, which he cryptically called las Botas de Poder—the Powerful Boots.
Arozarena is in many ways the perfect Ray. The Cardinals found him on a Mexican League farm team; Tampa Bay executives loved what they saw, and gave up their top pitching prospect for him. Most baseball fans had not heard of him until last week, when he mashed three home runs off the Yankees.
This is what the Rays do. They were assembled at a baseball thrift shop, picked up between chipped teacups and moth-eaten afghans. Lefty Blake Snell was their first-round pick in 2011, but even he did not make a single prospect list until just before he debuted in ’16. Catcher Mike Zunino and outfielders Austin Meadows and Hunter Renfroe were all first-rounders who had lost their luster by the time Tampa Bay traded for them. Righty Tyler Glasnow had a 7.69 ERA the season before the Rays acquired him from the Pirates. First baseman Ji-Man Choi is on his sixth team. Set-up man Diego Castillo could not get a team to sign him from the Dominican Republic until he was 20, ancient by that country’s standards. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was a 31st-round pick. Infielder Mike Brosseau went undrafted entirely. So did closer Nick Anderson.
“I was a low-key, under-the-radar type of player coming up, and I just didn’t think enough people knew about me coming up, but I knew I could do special things, and I finally got my chance, my opportunity,” said Kiermaier. “It’s the same with the Rays. We’re a small-market team, we’re not the most popular team out there, but if you do all the little things right consistently, great things can happen.”
For Tampa Bay, those little things tend to center on run prevention. Fans like to joke about algorithms, but in this way this is the oldest-school of teams: It’s all pitching and defense … just with a few more pitching changes.
All that was on display on Saturday night. The infielders made half a dozen impressive plays, and the pitchers shut down one of the best lineups in the spot. They also did it even after manager Kevin Cash removed starter Charlie Morton, who was mowing down Astros, after 66 pitches. Morton had gotten two outs in the top of the sixth, but Houston had men on first and second with its most consistent hitter, Michael Brantley, at the plate.
Even Zunino admitted after the game that he was surprised to see Cash walking out of the dugout.
“It was pretty simple,” Cash said. “Third time through [the order]. We value that. We value our process. Michael Brantley’s as talented a hitter as anybody in baseball, and if you give him too many looks, he’s gonna get you. The leverage at that point might not have been any higher in the game, with first and third. I had all the confidence in the world that him not seeing Nick [Anderson] for two times, it was a better matchup. It’s no discredit to anybody. It’s just, that’s what we do. We believe in our process, and we’re gonna keep doing that.”
It worked, of course. Almost all of Cash’s moves this October have. Even when Tampa Bay squandered a 3–0 series lead to get to Game 7, he never wavered in his decision making. The Rays’ process got them the pennant. It also got them Arozarena. And it helped him become the force he has been.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” he said after the game. “They let me be myself. They let me have the freedom to be out there and be the player that I want to be.”
Then he walked off, wearing his Powerful Boots, headed for the World Series.