ST. PETERSBURG -- Ji-Man Choi admitted that there were some nerves as he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth inning on Sunday. The Rays were staring at a 4-3 deficit and a potential home series loss to the Tigers.
While there isn’t a conclusive answer as to why the Rays have struggled at Tropicana Field this season, losing a three-game series to Detroit, which holds the worst record in the Majors, would’ve been a low point in a frustrating campaign at home.
For eight innings, it appeared that Tampa Bay was headed down that path. But the offense rallied in the ninth as Choi played the hero role, delivering with a two-run walk-off single to lead the Rays to a 5-4 series-clinching win over the Tigers.
“I was definitely more nervous than enjoying the game just because we could’ve lost the game today,” Choi said through translator Ha Ram (Sam) Jeong. “I wasn’t being aggressive, I was just trying my best to get a run for the team, at least to get a tie.”
Choi delivered more than just a tie, as his single gave the Rays back-to-back walk-off wins for the first time since 2014. The single also snapped a streak of 17 at-bats without a hit with the bases loaded for Tampa Bay's offense.
“Both yesterday and today, we weren’t able to score from the beginning, and we feel bad for our pitchers because they’ve pitched well for the team, and they were doing their best to not give up any more runs for them,” Choi said. “But we kept going and we never gave up, and we were able to bring back the win for the team.”
The Rays, who struggled all weekend to score runs, got a boost from Tommy Pham, who connected on a two-run home run in the eighth inning off Tigers reliever Buck Farmer. Over his past four games, Pham has two home runs and four RBIs, and he is starting to swing the bat better despite working through a fracture in his right hand.
Once Pham cut the deficit to one, the Rays felt they were within striking distance. They took full advantage of the defensive mistakes that the Tigers made in the ninth inning before Choi’s walkoff single.
Travis d’Arnaud started the ninth by reaching on a throwing error by shortstop Gordon Beckham that slightly pulled Brandon Dixon off the bag at first. Willy Adames continued the inning with a walk to get the tying run into scoring position.
After an unsuccessful bunt attempt by Kevin Kiermaier that resulted in an out, Mike Brosseau reached on an infield single to third baseman Dawel Lugo that appeared to be playable off the bat. That loaded the bases and allowed Choi to deliver the heroics.
“You can’t [fall behind] too many times,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “At some point we gotta get a lead for our pitchers a little bit and let them work with a little bit of room to wiggle out of. Certainly we’ll take these two [wins]. At this time of the season, every win you can get is important, and these two have been really big.”
While Choi delivered the big blow, the Rays' pitching staff continued its impressive run and kept the offense within striking distance as it searched for the big hit.
Despite allowing four runs on Sunday, Rays pitchers allowed just six over the three-game series. Since the start of August, Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has an American League-best 2.91 ERA.
After breaking some strikeout records on Saturday, Rays pitchers followed on Sunday by setting a club record for a three-game series with 49. They fell one shy of tying the team mark for any series, accomplished in 2015 in a four-game set against the Astros.
“Pitching was outstanding,” Cash said. “Some days you got to pick up the offense; they certainly have done that lately. Kept us within striking distance, and we come up really late and get the big hits.”
The Rays battled offensive inconsistency during the entire three-game series and know that they have to play much better, especially once the schedule presents challenges against Houston and Cleveland over the next couple of weeks.
Tampa Bay scored only six runs against the Tigers, but its offense was able to do enough to come away with another series win over a team under .500 as the Rays continued their race for an AL Wild Card berth.
“The good teams, when they’re down, they never give up and they find ways to win,” d’Arnaud said. “It’s huge to get this season win against the Tigers. That was really big for us.”