ST. PETERSBURG -- The way the Rays see it, American League Pitcher of the Month Drew Rasmussen said Friday afternoon, they’re in a tough AL Wild Card race. They’re in a virtual tie with the Mariners atop the Wild Card standings, and the Blue Jays are only two games behind them. Every game matters, so the Rays can’t afford to look too far beyond the one in front of them.
Even after their 9-0 rout of the Yankees on Friday night at Tropicana Field, the Rays wouldn’t allow themselves to look too far into the future. Win today, turn the page, win tomorrow, take it one game at a time, one series at a time and let everything else take care of itself, etc.
But hey, what if…
“If we play really well, and we position ourselves in a spot where we can make a run at the division, that'd be really nice,” Rasmussen said. “But I don't think that's anyone's concern at this point.”
It may not be a concern, but it’s getting harder to ignore. With the September stretch run underway, the Rays have given themselves a chance to come back and win their third straight AL East title.
Tampa Bay’s fourth straight victory cut the club’s deficit in the AL East -- which seemed insurmountable not too long ago -- to five games (four in the loss column) with 32 left to play. Perhaps fittingly, the Rays will have five more pivotal matchups with the current division leaders over the next nine days.
Is there enough time for the Rays to catch up?
“They're still a pretty good team, and we still have to do our work and struggle and battle to keep on going for the rest of the season,” outfielder Manuel Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “There's still plenty of games left, and the way we've been playing, I think we're gonna be all right.”
The Yankees still have the upper hand thanks to their outstanding first half, but these two teams have been headed in opposite directions for nearly two months. The Yankees were 61-25 on July 10, leading the AL East by 14 games and comfortably sitting a season-high 15 1/2 games ahead of the injury-riddled, 45-40 Rays.
Since then, Tampa Bay has gone 28-17, with an AL-best 19-9 record since the start of August, while New York has spiraled through an 18-28 stretch. The Yankees’ five-game edge over the Rays is their smallest lead in the division since the end of play on June 1.
The Rays say they aren’t watching the standings, though, instead maintaining their focus on here and now.
“There's nothing we can do [about] the future. We have to think about today,” said outfielder David Peralta, who broke a scoreless tie Friday night with a fourth-inning RBI single off Domingo Germán. “What can we do today to win the game? And everything's gonna take care of itself.”
They did plenty to win the series opener.
Starter Jeffrey Springs (5 2/3 innings, seven strikeouts) and relievers JT Chargois, Colin Poche, Jason Adam and Calvin Faucher shut out the scuffling Yankees. It was the Rays’ eighth shutout of the season and the 15th time in their last 19 games that they allowed three runs or fewer. They’ve been effective against the AL’s highest-scoring lineup all season, holding the Yankees to 42 runs in 14 meetings.
“You want to play up to good teams. We've got a lot of good arms, so we feel like we match up well with them at times,” said Springs, who is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in his last six starts. “It's just trusting our stuff and going right at them and see what happens.”
Before the Rays’ six-run eighth turned a tight game into a laugher, catcher Christian Bethancourt celebrated his 31st birthday in style by crushing a two-run homer off Germán in the seventh inning.
The Statcast-projected 108.3 mph blast was Bethancourt’s fourth homer in his last eight games, and it was particularly meaningful. Bethancourt’s wife, Jessica, and two young children, Raul and Amber, made the trip from Panama and all watched him play on his birthday for the first time.
“That made it extra special,” Bethancourt said.
But the Rays weren’t ready to make too much of the convincing win, noting that what they did Friday wasn’t guaranteed to carry over to Saturday. Manager Kevin Cash said cutting the Yankees’ lead to five games didn’t change his outlook at all.
Where’s his focus?
“Tomorrow,” Cash said.