The connection between the three plays was so striking, and they all came so close together, that it was hard not to draw a direct line through them all.
One was perhaps the easiest play to make in baseball, a short toss from shallow right field to first base. But Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros’ normally sure-handed second baseman, botched the throw, and it led directly to the second: a three-run home run by Manuel Margot.
The third play happened only a few minutes later when Margot, playing in the outfield for the Tampa Bay Rays, went tumbling over a retaining wall completely out of the playing field and onto hard cement to make one of the most spectacular and potentially dangerous plays of the season.
The three plays happened within eight at-bats of one another and could serve as triangulated images of a sometimes cruel sport.
The Rays beat the Astros, 4-2, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, with Game 3 on Tuesday. The Astros, who had put up plenty of scoring in their first two series, have managed only three runs in the first two games of this series, which is almost as rare as an Altuve making a throwing error — something that happened twice on Monday.
“Oh, no, it’s not business as usual,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who homered in Game 2. “Tomorrow is a must-win situation for us.”
All the games in the series are being played at Petco Park, a neutral site in San Diego, because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it is familiar territory for Margot, who played four seasons for the San Diego Padres before being traded to the Rays in February. But he had never played right field in the park before, and never had to negotiate the fence down the right-field line.
But he became intimately acquainted with it on his highlight-reel catch in the top of the second inning. With runners on second and third, Astros center fielder George Springer lifted the ball high down the line, and Margot reached over it to make the catch. But as he did so, his side hit the top of the fence, his momentum carried him over it and he disappeared down into the cement well.
“Once I actually started to flip and realized it was a little bit further of a drop, I kind of got a little scared,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter.
But he immediately stood up, glove held high, to show an umpire he had made the catch, then collected himself briefly before running back to the dugout. He said he was unhurt other than a scrape on his leg and also noted that he thought his home run was a bigger play.
Margot, like many on the Rays, is not a widely known player. A 26-year-old from the Dominican Republic, he was originally signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2011 and was eventually traded to the Padres in a deal that sent the closer Craig Kimbrel to Boston in 2015.
Margot hit only one home run in his first regular season with Tampa Bay, batting .269 as he persevered through personal loss. His father, Enmanuel, died in early August after contracting Covid-19, and Margot revealed on Monday that earlier this year he and his family had been involved in a frightening incident in which a fire broke out in the car they were in.
“Our entire family was in the car and, thankfully, bystanders were able to pull one of my kids out,” he said through the interpreter. “Luckily, I’m able to be here to tell you guys about it,” he said through his interpreter.
Margot and the Rays got some help on Monday from some uncharacteristic mistakes by Altuve, who did not speak to reporters after the game. But Astros Manager Dusty Baker acknowledged that he was concerned that Altuve might develop the so-called yips, a mental block preventing players from making the simplest throws.
“You just hope that he isn’t getting the yips because invariably, they come in bunches,” Baker said. “Everything comes in bunches: errors, hits, homers. I just told him to flush it. This guy has been awesome for us, but you’ve got to flush it and move on, or else it multiplies.”
After the two errors, Altuve responded with a strong throw in the seventh inning, but at one point he and Correa changed places on the defensive shift, which Correa said was to allow him to range wider in a greater space.
Offensively, the Astros hit the ball extremely hard several times but were thwarted by terrific defensive plays — not only by Margot, but also by Joey Wendle at third base and by Willy Adames at shortstop, plus several good stretches by the elastic first baseman Ji-Man Choi. The infield defense was so good, it even outshone Margot’s spectacular catch in right field, especially for those who had an obscured view of it.
“Joey’s defense and Willy’s defense were as bright a spot as anything going for us today,” said Tampa Bay Manager Kevin Cash, who could not see Margot’s catch from the Rays’ dugout.
Adames snared two line drives, and Wendle robbed Altuve of a potential base hit, as the Rays’ defenders helped the veteran pitcher Charlie Morton survive five scoreless innings. A former Astros starter, Morton said he has been the beneficiary of good defense for the past four seasons on both teams, and that included Altuve.
“It allows you to go out and pitch your game with reckless abandon,” Morton said.
He allowed no runs in five innings and became the third A.L. pitcher to win four consecutive playoff games allowing one run or fewer, joining Masahiro Tanaka and Whitey Ford, who did it exclusively in the World Series.
But Lance McCullers Jr. outpitched Morton. He struck out 11 and set down 14 in a row at one point, until catcher Mike Zunino’s home run in the seventh. But the Margot homer in the first was the decisive blow, even if all three runs were unearned because of Altuve’s errors.
When the inning was over, McCullers told Altuve on the bench that it was not all his fault.
“I said, ‘I know you’re disappointed,’” McCullers said, “‘but I should have picked you up there.’”