As injuries pile up, Rays' path to division title narrows

September 24th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- On Monday, the Rays will board a flight to Boston to begin the final week of the regular season. They’ll play five more games, two at Fenway Park and three in Toronto, before returning home to begin the postseason.

Still to be determined during the Rays’ season-ending road trip: When and who they’ll play the next time they report to Tropicana Field. But their 9-5 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon, combined with the Orioles’ 5-1 win over the Guardians, made it much more likely that they’ll be back in nine days to host a best-of-three American League Wild Card Series.

Tampa Bay’s path to its primary goal, winning the AL East title, now looks like even more of an uphill climb than it did Sunday morning. Baltimore’s magic number to clinch the division (and the AL’s No. 1 seed) dropped to three, with a week of games remaining.

  • Games remaining (5): at BOS (2), at TOR (3)
  • Standings update: The Orioles (97-59) hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the Rays (95-62) for first place in the AL East. Baltimore also controls the head-to-head tiebreaker against Tampa Bay. The AL East champion will be the No. 1 seed and get a bye into the Division Series. The second-place team will be the No. 4 seed and host a Wild Card Series.
  • Postseason status: Clinched a playoff berth and home-field advantage in their first series

“We've got to keep moving forward,” center fielder Manuel Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We know Baltimore's a really good team. We've just got to keep doing our thing.”

That’s easier said than done, of course, especially as the Rays’ injuries continue to pile up. In the last 12 days, they’ve lost center fielder Jose Siri (fractured right hand), outfielder Luke Raley (cervical strain), setup man Jason Adam (left oblique strain) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (right patella fracture) to an increasingly star-studded injured list.

They played this weekend without Randy Arozarena (right quad tightness) and setup man Robert Stephenson (neck soreness), and All-Star first baseman Yandy Díaz (right hamstring tightness) exited Sunday’s game after two innings with what manager Kevin Cash called a “precautionary” measure.

“It's going to be very difficult. We've lost a lot of key players and position players as well,” said infielder Isaac Paredes, who blasted his 30th home run in the seventh inning, through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think we need to just make sure these young guys are going to do a good job of making up for it.”

That wasn’t the case in Sunday’s series finale.

Rookie starter Taj Bradley gave up six runs, including five with two outs in the second inning. A George Springer fly ball took a bad bounce past Margot for a inside-the-park three-run homer. And the Rays made three key mistakes on the bases.

The Blue Jays put together their big inning in the second thanks to a two-run single by Whit Merrifield and Springer’s inside-the-park job, which Margot said he was “really close” to catching before it ricocheted to where nobody was positioned. But Bradley was kicking himself afterward for the walk to Alejandro Kirk that started the whole thing.

“I just feel like it was a two-out walk that led to a lot more things and hits where people weren't,” Bradley said.

Bradley recovered well from there, retiring 10 straight batters before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went deep to lead off the sixth. Cash said it was “pretty impressive” that Bradley bounced back to pitch a career-high seven innings on the day. 

But the Rays couldn’t hit their way out of that hole, as they ran themselves out of a few scoring opportunities.

“We didn't have our best day on the bases,” Cash said. “I think we've been pretty good here as of late in not running into outs, but today it crept up in there and probably affected us.”

Two of those mistakes came in the third inning. Harold Ramírez led off with a single and advanced to third when Curtis Mead bashed a ball off the right-field wall, but Mead was easily thrown out trying to stretch his hit into a double. 

Next, Springer dove to catch Paredes’ line drive, seemingly a perfect opportunity for Ramírez to score from third. But Ramírez had broken on contact and froze, so by the time he got back to third, it was too late to score.

The Rays ran their way out of another opportunity in the fourth. After getting one run when Josh Lowe doubled and scored on a Taylor Walls single with two outs, Osleivis Basabe reached on a single off starter Yusei Kikuchi. But he was picked off by Kirk, ending the inning.

“It's a tough loss for us, because we ran the bases a little bit bad,” Ramírez said. “We didn't take advantage of that situation, but that's part of the game.”