Rays champs in 1st battle of 1st-place teams: 'We're just here to win'

May 3rd, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Throughout their record-breaking first month of the season, the Rays left little room for doubt. They scored more runs and hit more homers than any team in the Majors. They allowed fewer runs and total bases than any other club. In their first 29 games, they produced a run differential not seen in 121 years.

If there was one question left to be answered, it had to do with Tampa Bay’s schedule. The Rays’ opponents during the first month entered play on Tuesday with a combined .417 winning percentage. This month figures to present a tougher challenge, with 29 games in 30 days against opponents boasting a collective .597 winning percentage.

“That's when baseball kind of gets fun,” left-hander Shane McClanahan said. “You want to be the best, you've got to play against the best."

Tampa Bay passed the first test Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, doing a little bit of everything to pull off a 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh in a matchup of clubs with the Majors’ two best records. The Rays became only the fifth team in MLB’s expansion era (since 1961) to win at least 24 of their first 30 games, joining the 1977 Dodgers, ‘81 A’s, ‘84 Tigers and 2016 Cubs.

“No matter who we play, we just have to play baseball hard and the right way,” said. “Because we’re just here to win.”

Tuesday’s victory didn’t necessarily come easy, but once again, the Rays found ways to win.

Seven pitchers combined to hold the Pirates to five hits -- with none in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Ramírez drove in one run on a grounder to right field through a drawn-in infield in the fourth, then bashed a Statcast-projected 430-foot home run in the sixth. even stole home, doing so as part of a double steal with in the fifth inning.

“You’d like to be as dynamic as possible and versatile as possible. You’re not going to be able to hit home runs every night,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You’re going to have to scratch and claw for some runs here and there, and I think we’ve shown throughout the first part of this season that we’ve been able to score many, many different ways.”

Ramírez put that on display as the Rays improved to 15-2 at Tropicana Field, driving in two runs in markedly different fashion. With Randy Arozarena on third base and one out in the fourth, Ramírez used his impressive contact ability to slap a two-strike fastball from Roansy Contreras through the right side for an RBI single.

After putting the first run on the board for Tampa Bay, Ramírez capped the scoring in the sixth by launching a 3-1 slider out to center. He now has six home runs in 76 at-bats this season, the same number he had in 120 games last year. 

“Harold’s always been a guy that’s shown the ability to hit. He’s always had bat-to-ball ability,” Cash said. “I feel like right now, he’s maybe taking his game, or his hitting, to even a higher level with the power that’s being shown.”

The Rays also showed their ability to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes after giving up the tying run in the fifth.

With Manuel Margot on first and nobody out, Siri lofted a popup to shallow center. Two Pirates converged on the ball, and center fielder Jack Suwinski let it drop for a single. Then Margot scored on an RBI single to center by Franco, and Siri dashed home on the successful double-steal with Franco.

It was the 15th time in franchise history the Rays successfully stole home and the first time since Randy Arozarena did so in Game 1 of the 2021 American League Division Series. Siri said the play was pure instinct, not something he communicated with Franco beforehand.

“You kind of see it. We’re all paying attention,” Siri said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We’re all ballplayers, so we’re paying attention to those little things. So when he went, I saw it.”

That was plenty of run support for Tampa Bay’s bullpen, even as they had to overcome a two-out, two-walk outing by opener and a fifth-inning injury to lefty (left foot contusion). From in the fifth to in the ninth, they were up to the task.

“We’ve got the best bullpen in the league, so anytime that they’re in the game, you know we’re going to get through it,” Fleming said. “They shoved tonight. It was awesome to see."