ST. PETERSBURG -- Kevin Cash had the Rays' series-opener Friday against the A's mapped out perfectly. Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough would get him through the first five innings, then Tampa Bay would play matchup baseball until Sergio Romo could close out the game in the ninth inning.But
ST. PETERSBURG -- Kevin Cash had the Rays' series-opener Friday against the A's mapped out perfectly. Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough would get him through the first five innings, then Tampa Bay would play matchup baseball until Sergio Romo could close out the game in the ninth inning.
But sometime in the middle innings -- probably when Tampa Bay blew a bases-loaded opportunity in the sixth inning -- it started to seem like nine innings wouldn't be enough. The Rays' bullpen traded blows with Oakland's at Tropicana Field until the game reached the 10th inning. Cash was running out of options and the timing wasn't ideal. Khris Davis was coming to the plate, and he would soon deliver the A's a 2-1 win. Rookie Jaime Schultz was the most reliable righty left for the manager to call upon against baseball's premier power hitter.
"Schultzie comes in and does a good job as far as throwing strikes," Cash said, "he just fell behind on Davis."
Schultz had a game plan, too. The pitcher wanted to get ahead in the count, then pump a belt-high, 94-mph fastball by the outfielder.
Quickly, Schultz fell behind 2-0. Now he was running out of options and Davis was there to pounce with a go-ahead solo home run over the center-field fence.
"Definitely not executed," Schultz said. "My game plan is always to go belt and up in the zone with a fastball, and I just kind of let it leak right over the plate, right into his strength."
Against a lineup like Oakland's, the margin of error is thin. The A's boast the fifth-best offense in baseball mostly because of their proficiency with the long ball. Entering Friday, Oakland was one of only three teams with at least 200 home runs on the season. Davis, who now leads the Majors with 42 homers, is the centerpiece of this homer-happy offense.
For Tampa Bay (80-66) to somehow sneak into the postseason, they'd have to play with their own razor-thin margin of error for the final three weeks. After losing Friday, Tampa Bay trails the A's (90-58) by nine games for the second Wild Card spot with only 16 games left. The Rays almost certainly had to win all three games this weekend to realistically make a final push.
For nine innings in front of 11,549, Tampa Bay matched Oakland. The A's jumped ahead on an RBI single by slugger Matt Olson in the top of the fourth and Tampa Bay hit right back with an RBI single by Joey Wendle in the bottom of the frame. The Rays used eight different pitchers to hold Oakland to two hits and a single run until the 10th inning. The A's, however, got five shutout innings of their own from the bullpen and escaped one bases-loaded jam in the sixth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Friendly bounce: The Rays got a very literal home-field bounce in the fourth inning to kickstart a crucial two-out rally. Half an inning after the A's jumped ahead to take a 1-0 lead, Tommy Pham stepped to the plate for Tampa Bay with two outs. The outfielder skied a fly ball out to shallow center field and it dropped between a trio of Oakland fielders. As could only happen at the Trop, the ball bounced up higher than the head of 5-foot-11 outfielder Ramon Laureano, and Pham dashed into second base for a double, extending his MLB-best active hitting streak to 17 games. Tampa Bay made his hustle pay off a batter later. Wendle lined a single out to left field and Pham raced home to tie the game at 1.
Left loaded: The Rays were maybe a few dozen feet away from jumping ahead in the sixth inning. Using some small ball, Tampa Bay managed to put runners on second and third with no outs, only to head to the seventh inning still knotted at 1.
The ill-fated rally began with outfielder Mallex Smith. One of the fastest players in baseball, Smith knocked a ground ball to Marcus Semien and easily beat out the shortstop's throw to first. Matt Duffy followed Smith with a bunt down the first-base line and a miscommunication by the A's put the infielder safely on first base. After a wild pitch by relief pitcher Shawn Kelley, Tampa Bay needed just a fly ball to the outfield to take the lead.
Instead, three straight Rays hitters missed a chance. First baseman Ji-Man Choi struck out swinging. Pham fouled out to first -- a ball Smith nearly tagged up on. Oakland then intentionally walked Wendle before striking out middle infielder Willy Adames to escape the jam.
"That's the at-bat of the game and I didn't get the job done," Adames said. "I didn't produce there, and we lost, 2-1, so I think that's pretty much it."
The Rays have now played 54 one-run games this season, second most in the Majors. Their 29 losses in one-run games are most in the Majors this season.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Castillo struck out four of the six batters he faced in his two innings Friday. The pitcher hit at least 100 mph on 11 of his 29 pitches, according to Statcast™.
HE SAID IT
"We were pretty aggressive on the bases tonight, and it didn't work out for us. We've really been having a lot of success with that lately so [we don't] really get upset or think too hard about that. That's the game we've been playing lately, just didn't work out for us tonight." -- Duffy, on the Rays' three outs on the basepaths
Tampa Bay will have another couple of chances to make up ground on the A's this weekend beginning with the second game of a three-game series Saturday at 6:10 p.m. ET. Stanek (2-3, 2.58 ERA) will be the Rays' opener, and Oakland will counter with an opener of its own in Liam Hendriks (0-1, 5.94).
David Wilson is a contributor to MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.