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Rays' offense stuck in neutral again as Astros force Game 6

SAN DIEGO – Except for an occasional homer, the Tampa Bay Rays’ offense has fallen largely silent on the brink of the World Series.

For all their superb pitching, sublime defense, tactical innovation and relentless cheerleading from the dugout, the Rays might not go any farther if they can’t simply put some men on base and score a few more old-fashioned runs than the Houston Astros.

Tampa Bay hit three solo homers and stranded nine runners in a 4-3 loss Thursday in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, failing to finish off the series for the second straight day while absorbing back-to-back defeats for the first time since Sept. 8-10.

“That big hit has continued to elude us with guys on base,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said.

With Carlos Correa's walkoff homer against formidable Tampa Bay reliever Nick Anderson, the Astros avoided elimination and trimmed the Rays’ once-daunting series lead to 3-2 after a string of missed offensive opportunities for the AL East champions.

Given two chances in about 24 hours to clinch their franchise’s second trip to the World Series, the Rays came up with just three runs and seven hits apiece in their two losses. Tampa Bay went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position in Game 5 after going 1 for 4 in Game 4.

It's no secret the Rays are struggling at the plate in the postseason, batting just .210 with a .695 OPS — both easily the lowest among the four teams still alive. It hadn't really hurt them until the last two days in the ALCS, when the Astros squeaked out a pair of wins.

“We’ve been streaky throughout the course of these playoffs,” Tampa Bay outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "We’ve had some offensive outbursts a few games, and then we’ve been quiet for a lot of them. Our pitchers have been so good that if we squeak three or four across, we win a lot of these games.

“Guys are doing everything in their power to get locked in and get good at-bats, but it’s the ALCS,” said Kiermaier, who hasn't started the last two games because of an injured hand. “They’re going to throw out good pitcher after good pitcher, and we’re going to do the same. We need to do a little bit better job of that, take our walks and create runs in many different ways. We need to get on base and put pressure on them.”

Cash sees his team's offensive woes as “a combination” of several factors. The Rays have three wins despite scoring just 17 runs in the ALCS.

“Look, they’ve pitched well,” Cash said. “They’ve pitched us tough."

The Rays still had a handful of big hits. Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena homered early in Game 5, and Ji-Man Choi provided an indelible moment with his tying homer and a major bat flip in the eighth.

“I guess we had the momentum going into the ninth,” said Choi, who went 2 for 2 with two walks. “But no one said it was going to be easy.”

Indeed, the Rays left the bases loaded in the second inning and stranded two runners apiece in the fourth and fifth, failing to break open the game against the succession of rookies coming out of the Houston bullpen.

“I don’t think we’re getting home run happy,” Cash said. “We need to get back to what makes us good offensively, and the homers don’t get in the way of that. Let’s try to get some guys on base before the home runs.”

Two of the Rays' rallies ended with catcher Mike Zunino at the plate. Tampa Bay's No. 9 hitter has three homers in the postseason, becoming the first player in major league history to hit multiple homers in the playoffs after batting below .150 in the regular season.

Zunino couldn't come through in Game 5, even though he smoked a line drive to right field with the bases loaded in the second. Josh Reddick caught it near the warning track.

The Rays even made a defensive play that was less than ideal in Game 5. That's something of a rarity in this postseason, when Tampa Bay has been practically perfect in each game.

Michael Brantley drove in two runs in the third with a hard-hit single to Austin Meadows in right field. Martín Maldonado was just rounding third when Meadows let loose his throw to the plate, but it was too high and too slow, bouncing twice — and the less-than-speedy catcher still slid home with time to spare.

The Rays got yet another big hit from Arozarena, who tied the major league rookie record for postseason homers with his sixth. Evan Longoria also hit six for Tampa Bay in 2008.

Arozarena's 20 hits and 10 extra-base hits have set new team records for a single postseason — but the rest of the Tampa Bay roster has just 15 homers and 22 extra-base hits combined.

And Arozarena went just 1 for 5 in Game 5, striking out twice. Choi was the only consistent offensive contributor, and it wasn't enough.

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