Wizardly Walls helps Rays become first to 50 wins

2B turns smash into DP that helps get Tampa Bay out of jam, setting up Raley's go-ahead HR

June 16th, 2023

OAKLAND -- The Rays had already seen their three-run lead vanish by the time the A’s loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon. With Seth Brown coming to the plate against lefty Jake Diekman, they were perhaps one well-hit ball away from losing this four-game series to an Oakland club with one of the worst records in baseball.

Oakland got a well-hit ball, a scorching grounder off Brown’s bat that threatened to get past Tampa Bay’s drawn-in infield. But second baseman  played it perfectly, picking the smash with an exit velocity of 107.9 mph and starting a key double play that set up ’s tiebreaking homer in the Rays’ 4-3 win over the A’s.

“It's typical Taylor Walls,” Raley said, grinning.

With the victory, Tampa Bay became the first team in the Majors to win 50 games this season. Only six other teams in MLB’s Wild Card Era (since 1994) have reached 50 wins as quickly as the Rays (50-22): Cleveland in 1995, Seattle in 2001, the White Sox in 2005 and the Yankees in 1998, 2018 and last year.

Thursday’s victory didn’t come easily, nor did the series split against Oakland after Tampa Bay dropped the first two games. ’s 11-strikeout start fizzled as he allowed three runs and didn’t finish the fifth, then the Rays narrowly escaped the seventh and needed Raley’s 12th homer of the season to pull ahead for good.

The Rays appeared to be in complete control in the early going, building a three-run lead against A’s starter Paul Blackburn while Bradley struck out the first six batters he faced and a career-high 11 overall.

Coming off the shortest start of his big league career against the Rangers, Bradley put his dominant stuff on display while recording 17 swinging strikes on 88 pitches, including 10 whiffs against a fastball that averaged 96.8 mph on the day.

“He’s got four plus pitches. He knows how to pitch,” A’s second baseman Tony Kemp said. “I think we just kind of figured out to try to get him in the zone as best we could to have better at-bats.”

The rookie finally stumbled in the fifth, issuing a pair of one-out walks before Esteury Ruiz reached on an Isaac Paredes error at third to load the bases. Ryan Noda put Oakland on the board with an RBI single, then Brown tied the game and ended Bradley’s day with a two-run single to left. Reliever Kevin Kelly limited the damage by forcing an inning-ending double play.

“Really impressed with Taj. It looked like a guy, a young pitcher that was kind of on a mission to reset himself from his last outing,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He was so committed to the zone. Stuff was as crisp and powerful as we've seen. Stunk that we couldn't get him the win.”

The game nearly got away from the Rays in the seventh. With the bases loaded and the count full, Diekman fired a fastball at the bottom of the zone that Brown crushed at Walls, who was pulled in to the edge of the infield dirt. Walls picked it and quickly cut down the runner at the plate, giving catcher Francisco Mejía time to make a strong throw to Raley at first.

“That ball was smoked, so I didn't really have time to think about anything,” said Walls, who jumped and pumped his fists after the critical 4-2-3 double play. “After I realized I'd gloved it clean, I knew that it was a chance for a double play, so just tried to get rid of it and give Frankie a good chance.”

Reliever Robert Stephenson completed the escape by striking out Brent Rooker with four straight sliders to strand runners on second and third. Right-handers Jason Adam and Pete Fairbanks retired the last six A’s batters, so the Rays just needed one big hit. They got it from Raley.

A day after breaking his bat over his knee in frustration, Raley broke out the lumber in the eighth. Anticipating a breaking ball after being bombarded with soft stuff all series, the left-handed slugger caught a hanging curveball from former Rays reliever Austin Pruitt and launched it a Statcast-projected 410 feet out to center field for the tiebreaking home run.

“I didn't know if I was going to get it up over that wall, so when I saw it go out, very relieved just to give us back the lead,” Raley said. “It was a hard-fought series, and for us to drop the first two and come back and win the last two, they're two big wins.”