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Rays blank Tribe, gain ground in WC race

Pruitt, 'pen step up while Garcia, Aguilar provide offense
@juanctoribio
August 30, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays knew the importance of playing well this weekend against the Indians. With Cleveland entering Friday’s game holding a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay in the American League Wild Card standings, the Rays knew that this was an opportunity to make up ground with just

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays knew the importance of playing well this weekend against the Indians.

With Cleveland entering Friday’s game holding a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay in the American League Wild Card standings, the Rays knew that this was an opportunity to make up ground with just 27 games left in the regular season.

Box score

It wasn’t always easy, as Indians starter Shane Bieber looked dominant for six innings, but a four-run seventh inning carried the Rays to a 4-0 win at Tropicana Field.

Austin Pruitt, who will celebrate his 30th birthday on Saturday, got his first start of the season for Tampa Bay and got an early birthday present, tossing 5 1/3 innings against an Indians lineup that features multiple All-Stars.

Pruitt struck out six and recorded 11 swings and misses on 77 pitches. Most importantly, the right-hander did not walk anyone, and aside from a small jam in the second inning, he kept the Indians’ offense quiet.

“He was outstanding for us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He limited their offense. Not a lot of hard-hit balls by either team early on, but Austin had everything going. [Pitching coach Kyle Snyder] goes down and checks pitches in between innings, and he said he located the ball really, really well and kept guys off-balance and got us deep [in the game].”

Pruitt got deep enough to allow Cash to ease off some of the relievers after turning to the bullpen for heavy innings during Thursday’s 9-8 win in Houston. Pruitt's performance, along with Oliver Drake’s 1 2/3 innings, also gave the Rays' offense a chance to finally break through against Bieber, who was looking for his 13th win of the season.

“I had a lot of confidence,” Pruitt said. “I wanted to go out there and give everything I got, moreso for the bullpen. Anytime I’ve been up and down, this is a great group of guys who welcome me each time.”

Austin Meadows led off the seventh inning with a single and advanced to third when Travis d’Arnaud singled on a perfectly executed hit-and-run. After Bieber struck out Ji-Man Choi for the first out of the inning, Avisaíl García delivered with the big hit on a 3-2 offering from Bieber.

“He hasn’t done what Avi’s done all year since he’s come back from the IL,” Cash said. “The other day he had a couple hustle, ground-ball infield singles. That’s not him. For him to stay on, lay off a couple tough pitches, put himself in a 3-2 situation where he stays on a ball and finds a hole past a diving [Francisco] Lindor was big. The fireworks kind of came after that, but Avi’s at-bats were really good.”

Garcia had struck out in his first two at-bats against Bieber and had missed a couple of breaking balls in his third at-bat, but he laced an RBI single past the infield on a 93-mph fastball, giving the Rays a 1-0 lead. Garcia let out a roar as he ran down the first-base line.

“I was just trying to look for something in the middle of the plate,” Garcia said. “I got a fastball and I just put a good swing on it.”

Then, with the lead in hand, Jesús Aguilar picked a good time to connect on his second home run as a member of the Rays, launching a three-run shot off reliever Adam Cimber to give Tampa Bay a four-run cushion.

The home run snapped a 19-game drought for Aguilar. It came against an organization he spent nine seasons with, mostly in the Minor Leagues.

“That was a great feeling,” Aguilar said. “But the most important thing was that we won today, and now we have two more to go. I think this is the most important series of the year, and we have to show what we kind of have. I think we’re in a really good spot right now.”

The Rays are 1 1/2 games behind the Indians in the Wild Card chase and remain one game back of Oakland, which beat the Yankees on Friday, for the second spot. Now Tampa Bay has two more chances to continue to put pressure on the Indians as the race heats up.

“They’re going after one of the spots we’re trying to get to,” Pruitt said. “Against this club, and it’s a really good club over there, it was a big win for us tonight.”

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