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Pieces falling into place for Rays at right time

@juanctoribio
September 26, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays won the American League East title on Wednesday, and now they’re closing in on being the AL’s top-seeded team with their 6-4 win over the Phillies on Friday at Tropicana Field. Second baseman Joey Wendle delivered a clutch two-run single in the eighth to give

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays won the American League East title on Wednesday, and now they’re closing in on being the AL’s top-seeded team with their 6-4 win over the Phillies on Friday at Tropicana Field.

Second baseman Joey Wendle delivered a clutch two-run single in the eighth to give the Rays the lead. That came just minutes after he made a spectacular running catch into the Tampa Bay bullpen to end the top half of the frame.

Although the Rays can lock up the No. 1 seed as early as Saturday with a win or an A's loss in either game of their doubleheader with the Mariners, Tampa Bay is more focused on trying to get healthy and play well into the postseason.

Box score

“We want to win going into the postseason and create that momentum, and the only way you do that is by winning games,” said manager Kevin Cash. “We’re going to be mindful of everybody going forward and monitoring the workloads. [Saturday] will be fairly unique how we go about it, but we’re going to do everything we can to win the game.”

Morton wraps up regular season

Though the Rays feel confident about all aspects of their roster, there’s no secret that they will only go as far as their starting pitching takes them. Nothing is official, but it’s likely that the Rays will go with Blake Snell in Game 1, Tyler Glasnow in Game 2 and Charlie Morton in Game 3, if necessary, in next week's AL Wild Card Series.

Because of that, they are going to need Morton to be sharp, and the right-hander hasn’t quite gotten there since coming off the injured list on Sept. 2. In his final regular-season start, Morton allowed four runs (three earned) and struck out eight over five innings of work.

One highlight was Morton’s curveball. He threw his signature curve 33 times, recording eight swings and misses, the most since returning from the IL. Before Friday he had recorded just 11 swings and misses on the pitch in four September starts.

“I came out there in the first couple of innings and I felt really good,” Morton said. “I think it was promising to see some swing and miss tonight. I think I threw some really good breaking balls, but really, I’m looking back at it, there are just one or two pitches that you wish you could have them back where you just didn’t execute in a big moment.”

While the curveball was a weapon for Morton, fastball velocity remains a concern. Morton averaged 95 mph on the pitch in the first two innings but saw a decline over the next three. He finished with an average of 93.7 mph, which is slightly higher than his season average but lower than his 94.7 mph clip last season.

“Some good and some OK,” Cash said of Morton’s outing. “I thought Charlie was fine, and if we’re going to view that as a tune-up, I think we all know in this clubhouse that when Charlie needs to find an extra gear, he can find it. He’s been in big, big games, big moments in his career, and when that opportunity arises, he’ll be ready to go.”

The outfield duo

Brett Phillips and Randy Arozarena got into an epic dance battle after the game on Wednesday, and it’s no coincidence that both had good nights at the plate on Friday. Phillips hit his first homer as a member of the Rays, a game-tying solo blast in the sixth. Arozarena, on the other hand, continued to display his ability, going 2-for-5 with two more hard-hit balls.

Both Phillips and Arozarena producing at the plate would be a good sign for the Rays, and both will see added playing time in the absence of Austin Meadows.

“We knew when we acquired [Phillips] that we had a guy that was very, very athletically talented and had checked a lot of boxes in the Minor Leagues,” Cash said. “But for whatever reason, not his fault, not a team’s fault, he wasn’t getting the most consistent reps, and not that he’s got them here, but we know we have a guy that we like and can do some special things.”

Renfroe’s first experience

On Friday, Hunter Renfroe got his first taste of playing first base in the Majors, with mixed results. He did a solid job of catching everything that was thrown his way but had some challenges with positioning, which was fairly expected.

Renfroe could be an option at first base in the postseason, particularly if Yandy Díaz can only serve as a DH. However, it still remains unlikely to happen during a postseason game.

Yandy, Ji-Man 'looked really good' in workout

Bullpen standout

In addition to starting pitching, the Rays are going to need their bullpen to be clicking heading into the postseason. Oliver Drake being right is at the top of the list. Drake was a big part of the Rays’ success last season, but he has struggled with injuries and inconsistent velocity this season.

Drake, who allowed three runs in his most recent outing, against the Mets, had a much-needed bounceback outing on Friday, tossing a scoreless sixth inning and getting two swings and misses on the splitter.

“I think Oliver needed to have a good outing,” Cash said. “[He] might get one more in the next day or two, but he needed one just for his psyche. He’s been through a lot this year, but we know that when he’s right, he really helps us in whatever role he’s asked on.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.