Before the first full team workout during Spring Training, the Rays sat in a room at the Port Charlotte complex, immediately getting a sense of how much talent the team had in 2020. One of the main goals that was uttered during the quick conversation? Win the American League East.
With a 2-1 win over the Mets on Monday at Citi Field and the Yankees’ loss to the Blue Jays, the Rays got closer to their goal as the magic number to clinch their first AL East title since 2010 is down to just one with five games left in the regular season.
The Rays also hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the White Sox, who lost to the Indians, for the top seed in the AL.
“That would be fun to accomplish and another step that we had in mind,” said Rays infielder Joey Wendle. “Our ultimate goal is to be the last team standing at the end of this year and win the World Series, but winning the American League East would be an accomplishment, it would be another step among many.”
Most of the pregame talk was centered, understandably so, on Jacob deGrom and what he has accomplished over the last few seasons. But it was the Tampa Bay pitching staff that came out on top and helped the Rays inch closer to the division title.
The way the Mets and Rays approached their pitching staffs on Monday couldn’t have been more different. New York didn’t have to tap into its bullpen much as deGrom was his dominant self, allowing two runs and striking out 14 over seven strong innings.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, went with Pete Fairbanks as the opener and used six pitchers, with none of them throwing more than three innings in the one-run effort.
“Outstanding effort by everybody involved,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “They can hit. They have a bunch of guys all throughout their lineup that are having solid seasons. For us to do that, we have to be on, and fortunately we were. Every guy that was called upon really did a nice job.”
Fairbanks opened the game with 1 2/3 scoreless innings, and due to the way the Mets’ lineup was structured with four right-handed hitters at the bottom of the lineup, Cash went to Ryan Thompson, who tossed a scoreless frame.
After Fairbanks and Thompson, Cash went to Josh Fleming, who was scheduled to pitch the bulk of the innings, and the left-hander allowed just one run in three frames. Coming in after an opener could be the role for Fleming in the postseason, as he has pitched well in those situations.
In his last two outings following an opener, Fleming has allowed just one run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. After Fleming, the Rays used Diego Castillo, Ryan Sherriff and Nick Anderson to secure the last 10 outs of the game. Castillo tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings, Sherriff retired three of the four hitters he faced and Anderson recorded his sixth save of the season.
“It’s a close group and everybody fights for each other,” Anderson said. “I think that just goes to show you that everybody goes out there and they have everybody’s back. Our goal as a pitching staff is obviously to give up zero runs.”
Though deGrom was sharp on Monday, it was Nate Lowe who was able to deliver the big swing for the Rays. Lowe hit a solo shot off deGrom in the fourth, his fourth home run of the season. The blast had an exit velocity of 111 mph, which is the hardest homer given up by deGrom since June 6, 2017, when he allowed home runs to the Rangers' Joey Gallo (111.9 mph) and Nomar Mazara (111.7 mph).
“This is fun,” Lowe said. “With all the guys from all the different backgrounds kind of meshing in together, the guys in this clubhouse are great. It’s so fun to come to work every day.”
Aside from nearing a division title, the Rays are starting to play good baseball at the right time. The club has won five of its last six games and the pitching staff has allowed one run in four of those contests.
The defense has also been much improved, as Willy Adames made some key defensive plays at shortstop. The offense is still not quite where the team wants to be before October, but hitting deGrom is no easy task for any team in baseball. Overall, the Rays like what they see in the standings and on the field.
“We’re getting closer,” Cash said. “We have to keep playing our style of baseball. It was good to be in a tight ballgame yesterday, coming up short after four wins and [bouncing] right back. There was no margin of error in this game for us, and we found a way to win.”