Rays Top the Astros and, for Once, Fill Their Stadium

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Baseball is not dead in the Tampa Bay area, not just yet.

The Tampa Bay Rays, whose consistently poor home attendance has cast doubt on their long-term future in this area, staved off postseason elimination with an emphatic win over the Houston Astros in Game 3 of their American League division series on Monday in front of a lively crowd at Tropicana Field.

The Rays pounded the Astros, 10-3, in front of 32,251 fans — the stadium’s largest crowd of 2019 and more than three-and-a-half times the number of fans that showed up for a game two weeks ago during a pennant race. Most of them roared their support and waved yellow towels as a parade of Rays rounded the bases in a rout that kept their season alive.

The fans even sat in the upper deck, where the seats are usually covered by tarps during the regular season. But for the first time since 2016, some of the covers were rolled back, and the crowd poured into the upper deck and packed the lower levels to give Tropicana Field a genuine playoff feel.

The Trop was actually alive.

“About time,” said Tommy Pham, Tampa Bay’s designated hitter.

In their first home postseason game in six years, the Rays tied a club playoff record with four home runs. Kevin Kiermaier had the biggest, a three-run shot off Houston starter Zack Greinke, who fell to 0-5 with a 5.50 earned run average in seven career games at Tropicana Field.

Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames also hit home runs for the Rays, who expect the Trop to be rocking again for Game 4 on Tuesday. Houston will hand the ball to Justin Verlander, who dominated the Rays in Game 1, with the hope that their ace can close out the series on three days’ rest. For the Rays, it will be a bullpen day, featuring a series of relievers starting with Diego Castillo.

The winner of this series will play the winner of the other division series between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins. The Yankees, who are ahead in that series, are most likely pulling for the Astros to lose — or at least be drawn into a fight that could tax their pitching staff. Houston won 107 games during the regular season, the most in Major League Baseball, and holds home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said the decision to go with Verlander was not complicated. Verlander went 21-6 in the regular season with a 2.58 earned run average, and Tuesday will be his 27th postseason start. He is 8-0 in A.L.D.S. games.

“He’s one of the best pitchers in the world,” Hinch said. “It’s pretty simple.”

The Rays were the beneficiaries of a solid start by the former Astro Charlie Morton, who gave up a solo home run to Jose Altuve in the first inning, but nothing after, finishing with three hits allowed over five innings. He took the mound a little after 1 p.m. in an atmosphere that was jarringly different from virtually every other Rays home game during the regular season, when the stands are merely dotted with fans.

Tampa Bay had the second-lowest average attendance in Major League Baseball this year, with 14,734 fans per game, despite fielding an entertaining team that won 93 games (only the Miami Marlins drew fewer fans). The Rays’ attendance has declined every year since 2012 as local interest in the team — Monday aside — seems to wane.

Even on Sept. 23, with the Rays holding a half-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the A.L. wild-card race, only 8,779 fans showed up to see the Rays play the defending champion Boston Red Sox. Tampa Bay’s previous high for home attendance this year came on opening day on March 28, when 25,052 showed up. Usually, with the tarps in the upper deck, the attendance for much of the season is capped at about 26,000. But the Rays manage to play well even when the building is more than two-thirds empty, having gone 16-2 in their last 18 games at home.

The Rays’ lack of support at the turnstiles, combined with the inability to find a consensus on location and funding for a new stadium, has led ownership to explore alternatives. One possibility would see the Rays play part of their season in Tampa Bay and part of it in Montreal.

But at least on Monday, that possibility seemed distant, and the playoff atmosphere gave some hope to the Rays.

“If we have that every day, it would be so much different,” Adames said. “It’s something that we were expecting to have today, and I’m really happy that we had it. Hopefully, we will keep having it over the next days and seasons.”

It was especially meaningful for Kiermaier, who has been with the Rays since their last postseason appearance in 2013. But during that division series, a loss to the Red Sox, Kiermaier was not on the roster and watched the games from the clubhouse. He called Monday’s showing by the fans the best he had ever seen.

“Seeing everyone with the towels and every fan through every pitch, it was insane,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve never experienced before.”