Rays' AL East title push stalls in Toronto

September 15th, 2021

For the first time since early July, the Rays headed home Wednesday night at the end of a losing road trip.

A dominant Robbie Ray and the relentless Blue Jays lineup handed the Rays a 6-3 loss on Wednesday afternoon at Rogers Centre, capping a 4-5 trip through Boston, Detroit and Toronto. The Rays have been the American League’s best team away from home, with a 45-30 record on the road this season; the last time they finished a trip with a losing record, they were playing the Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Excited to get home,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, reflecting back on a trip that began with a wild Labor Day matinee at Fenway Park that Tampa Bay won, 11-10. “It just feels like we've been on the road a long time. Really would have liked to pull out this game today. It would have been that much better. But we'll be happy to get back home, see our fans and see if we can get on a little bit of a roll.”

Losing consecutive series in Detroit and Toronto was a missed opportunity for Tampa Bay to close the gap on clinching a trip to the postseason, but the Rays are still in a good spot as they return to Tropicana Field for 10 games against the Tigers, Blue Jays and Marlins.

They own the AL’s best record, at 90-56. Losing two of three in Toronto only reduced their AL East lead to eight games with 16 left to play. If they go 10-6 the rest of the way, they’ll have the franchise’s first-ever 100-win season. Their magic number to clinch the division remains at nine, and their magic number to officially secure a spot in the postseason is eight.

So after a frustrating end to a long road trip, there could be a series of champagne celebrations in store if they bounce back at home.

“It's nice to get tested like this,” said catcher , who hit his 30th homer of the season in the fifth inning Wednesday. “A little adversity at the end of the season is something that we can look forward to, battle through -- because we're going to face it if we want to get to where we want to get to.”

Their greater concern at the moment might be figuring out a way to beat the Blue Jays, who have reclaimed the AL’s top Wild Card spot by winning 16 of their last 19 games. Drew Rasmussen and four of Tampa Bay’s top relievers shut them out Tuesday night, but the Jays look like a team nobody wants to face right now. Yet the Rays must face them for three games next week at The Trop, and there’s a realistic scenario in which they meet again in the AL Division Series.

Ray, a top AL Cy Young Award candidate, was simply dominant. The lefty struck out six Rays hitters his first time through the order and finished the game with 13 -- and no walks -- in seven innings. The Rays swung and missed on 21 of his 101 pitches, including 12 fastballs and eight sliders.

“It's tough to make an argument that that's not the best fastball going right now in the American League,” Cash said. “For the most part, he's going to come after you with fastballs at the top of the zone, and when it's there, there's really not a ton you can do with it. So it's kind of one of those tip-your-cap days and tip-your-cap seasons to him.”

As imposing as the Blue Jays’ lineup is, the Rays saw first-hand this series how dangerous their starting pitching can be.

Alek Manoah held them to one hit and struck out 10 over eight innings in Monday's 8-1 loss. Jose Berríos allowed just one run in seven innings on Tuesday. Zunino’s fifth-inning solo shot was the Rays’ only run off Ray, who has put together a 1.85 ERA with 46 strikeouts and three walks in five outings against Tampa Bay this season.

“If you try to get to him early, he misses some barrels. You try to wait him out, you're sitting in a hole behind in the count,” Zunino said. “Facing him three or four times, we thought we'd have an answer at some point, but you continue to tip your cap and try to battle the best you can.”

Meanwhile, Rays starter stumbled against the Blue Jays’ powerful lineup after a handful of encouraging outings. Wacha had pitched to a 3.10 ERA over his last four starts, coming on the heels of an eight-start stretch with a 6.00 ERA. But he allowed six runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out five in six innings Wednesday.

Cash, Zunino and Wacha all said the right-hander pitched better than his final line would indicate, and one point in that direction was that he managed to get Toronto to swing and miss on 15 of his 95 pitches. But the Jays did half their damage with one big swing, as Bo Bichette ripped a three-run homer to left field off Wacha in a 30-pitch first inning. Toronto then strung together two rallies to pull further ahead, and they let Ray do the rest.

“I'm still working on getting where I need to be heading down the stretch here, but I feel like I'm still on the right track moving forward. I feel like the ball's still coming out really good,” Wacha said. “Kind of uncharacteristic giving free baserunners out there, and I think both of those came around to score. That's not really part of my game plan. But overall, I feel like I'm still heading in the right track and just continue working to get where I need to be.”