October 11, 2020 | 2:06am
A Yankees-Astros showdown in the ALCS would have fit the narrative quite nicely in the first postseason since Houston’s sign-stealing scandal was revealed.
But the Rays have been torching the norms and expectations for a few years, so why stop now?
The Rays crashed the party Friday night with a dramatic Game 5 win over the Yankees in the ALDS, setting up a meeting with the Astros in the ALCS beginning Sunday night at Petco Park in San Diego.
“Well, we did beat [ESPN’s] golden child,” Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks said during a break in the postgame celebration. “I know they cater to all the big boys.
“We’re fine with it. We love it. We’re a good ballclub. We’re trying to go out there and win no matter how big the market is that the team we’re playing is made of.”
The Rays have another big-market opponent up next in an Astros team that is playing in its fourth straight championship series — the fourth team in the wild-card era to do so. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is there for just the second time in franchise history after losing in its previous four trips to the ALDS before this year.
That included last October, when the Rays fell to the Astros in five games with Gerrit Cole pitching eight dominant innings for Houston in the deciding Game 5. But Cole is with the Yankees now and Justin Verlander — who with Cole was responsible for all three wins in the series — is unavailable after recent Tommy John surgery.
“We’re better this year than we were last year, and also, I know they have a lot of talent over there still, but they don’t have Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander,” outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said Saturday. “We definitely like that.”
Left-hander Framber Valdez will start Sunday’s Game 1 for the Astros against Rays southpaw Blake Snell, who will be tasked with cooling off a Houston offense that largely struggled throughout the regular season before finding its groove in the ALDS.
The Astros have also seemingly embraced the villain role in the aftermath of their sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball last offseason. They escaped the wrath of fans due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the scandal still followed them throughout the season and it would have been particularly amplified in a matchup with the Yankees, who they had beaten in the since-tainted 2017 ALCS.
But the Rays don’t mind playing the role of the good versus evil in this year’s championship series.
“I’ll enjoy that,” Kiermaier said. “I would hope more people would be rooting for us given the circumstances, rightfully so. … No one has forgotten what they have done or chose to do in years past and they have to live with that. But we want to end their season this year, doing everything our way and beating them at our game.”
The Yankees experienced that the hard way, both in the regular season and the ALDS. The Astros haven’t faced the Rays all year, but after fending them off in the ALDS last year and watching them from afar this year, they’re well aware of the challenge that awaits.
“That’s an outstanding baseball team from top to bottom,” Astros outfielder George Springer said. “Starters to bullpen, up and down their lineup. I remember watching them throughout the year and kind of just being like, ‘Well, that’s who they are.’ They are an unbelievable baseball team, a hard team to beat, so it’s going to be a grind.”