ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the course of nine innings Saturday afternoon, the Rays seemed like they would cruise to an easy win, looked poised for one of their more frustrating defeats of 2023 and ultimately displayed the resilience that has defined this team for so much of the season.
After coughing up an early five-run lead during a pair of ugly sequences in the sixth and eighth innings, the Rays pieced together a game-winning two-run rally capped by Josh Lowe’s walk-off single. For all that went wrong, they left Tropicana Field with a 7-6 win over the Blue Jays, their 11th walk-off victory of the year.
“We lose guys to injury, we have things not go our way, but this group's resilient. Everybody's been saying it,” said Lowe, who recorded his first career walk-off hit. “We were able to show that today, and that was a good win for us.”
The win clinched at least the top American League Wild Card spot for the Rays. They locked down a spot in the playoffs last Sunday, but this guarantees they will have home-field advantage in their first postseason series whether they catch the AL East-leading Orioles or not.
- Games remaining (6): vs. TOR (1), at BOS (2), at TOR (3)
- Standings update: The Orioles (96-59) hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Rays (95-61) for first place in the AL East. Baltimore also controls the head-to-head tiebreaker against Tampa Bay. The AL East champion will be the No. 1 seed and get a bye into the Division Series. The second-place team will be the No. 4 seed and host a best-of-three Wild Card Series.
- Postseason status: Clinched a playoff berth and home-field advantage in their first series
It’s no small advantage, either, as the Rays are a Major League-best 53-27 at home heading into their final regular-season game at Tropicana Field on Sunday. Batting last certainly had its advantages on Saturday, although it wasn’t exactly ideal that they needed to come back in the first place.
Yandy Díaz, Lowe and Christian Bethancourt each homered off Blue Jays starter Hyun Jin Ryu to give the Rays a 5-0 lead, and right-hander Zack Littell started the game with five scoreless innings. But with two outs in the sixth, the Rays paired two defensive misplays -- an error by Curtis Mead and a dropped third strike -- with four straight hits off reliever Shawn Armstrong that made it a one-run game.
Summoned to record the final out of the eighth with the tying run on third base and setup man Robert Stephenson unavailable due to a sore neck, top reliever Pete Fairbanks immediately let loose a wild pitch, walked three batters and hit another as the Blue Jays took a 6-5 lead.
“That could have been a very frustrating loss,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I'm really happy that we got frustrated, but we didn't get too frustrated.”
The Rays’ ninth-inning rally against Jays closer Jordan Romano began, as so many of their best moments have, with a big hit by Díaz. He sliced a leadoff double to complete a 4-for-4 game, and Harold Ramírez smacked a single to put runners on the corners.
Then a pair of prospects came through in the clutch. Mead fouled off one slider before pulling the next one into left field for a game-tying RBI single.
“The game, honestly, wasn't awesome up until that point,” said Mead, the Rays' No. 3 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. “To be able to kind of put that behind me and come up in a big moment is cool.”
After Isaac Paredes struck out, up came Rays top prospect Junior Caminero, the youngest player to appear in the Majors this season. His Major League debut had already been eventful, as the 20-year-old walked in his first plate appearance and picked up his first hit, a 112 mph single to left, in the third inning.
“A dream come true,” Caminero said through interpreter Manny Navarro.
Caminero smashed a potential inning-ending double-play ball into the ground. Shortstop Bo Bichette tossed it to second base for the first out, but MLB's No. 6 overall prospect hustled down the line to beat Davis Schneider’s throw to first.
He was initially called out, but a replay review confirmed what Caminero made clear from the moment he stepped on the base with his arms spread wide: He was safe, and the rally wasn’t over.
“I think we won the game because of Junior running down that line,” Díaz said through Navarro.
Lowe made sure that would be the case. Who better to be at the plate in that moment than the guy now batting .451 (23-for-51) with two outs and runners in scoring position?
Ahead in the count, 1-0, Lowe got the fastball he wanted from Romano and looped it to left field. Lowe watched it off the bat, then jumped and pumped his first when it landed inside the foul line.
“Just trying to put the ball in play,” Lowe said, smiling, “and let good things happen.”