ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays clinched their third straight postseason appearance on Wednesday, they opted for a relatively low-key celebration at Tropicana Field. They may not have to wait much longer for a bigger bash in the home clubhouse.
The Rays’ 8-0 win over the Marlins at Tropicana Field on Friday night, combined with the Yankees’ 8-3 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park, reduced Tampa Bay’s magic number to clinch the American League East title to two. That means the Rays can pop champagne, let loose in the clubhouse and celebrate their second straight AL East crown as soon as Saturday night, if they win again and the Red Sox lose.
“We know what's at stake, and we know if we come to the field and handle our business, then we'll be able to celebrate sooner than later. And we want to do that as soon as possible,” said veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who drove in three runs and finished a home run shy of the cycle on Friday. “Hopefully once we do, we just keep going and do not get content. We have to keep that motivation, because we just need to keep this competitive fire that we've had and just ride that out as long as possible.
“We know it's close, but there's still a lot left that we need to accomplish.”
• Games remaining: Eight
• Standings update: First place in the AL East, leading the Red Sox by seven games; best record in the AL, leading the Astros by four games
• Magic number for division title: Two
After officially locking up a spot in the postseason with a contentious win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, the Rays opened their final home series of the regular season with little drama in a two-hit shutout before a crowd of 15,340 on Friday.
The Rays got off to a quick start, as opener David Robertson -- making his first big league start in his 671th career appearance -- pitched a scoreless first inning. With two outs in what wound up being a 40-pitch first inning for Marlins starter Edward Cabrera, the Rays kept the inning alive and loaded the bases with a pair of walks and a Nelson Cruz single.
Up came Randy Arozarena, named the Rays’ Outstanding Rookie by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America during a pregame ceremony. The AL Rookie of the Year candidate smashed a 108 mph line drive to left field and wheeled around to second base with a three-run double.
“That was the game right there, to open it up right there,” said manager Kevin Cash.
Indeed, that was plenty of run support for bulk-inning pitcher Ryan Yarbrough. After a shaky start to his outing against the Tigers last Saturday, the left-hander retired 15 of the last 16 hitters he faced, including the final 13 in a row. He picked up right where he left off on Friday night, allowing only two hits and striking out four over six innings.
“Definitely encouraging,” Yarbrough said. “Especially this time of year, you just want to keep building on it and take it into the playoffs, so definitely on the right track.”
Yarbrough put together his longest scoreless outing of the season, recorded his ninth win and was the pitcher most responsible for Tampa Bay’s 12th shutout of the season. Facing a Marlins lineup with four left-handed hitters, Yarbrough leaned on his curveball more than any other pitch, but effectively utilized his entire arsenal to breeze through the longest scoreless relief outing of his career on only 80 pitches.
“You saw a lot of popups, a lot of mis-hits. That's kind of the Yarbs that we've grown accustomed to seeing,” Cash said. “It was very encouraging to see him get back into that rhythm.”
The Rays kept adding on against the Marlins’ bullpen, meanwhile, building up a big lead for the second straight game with a fully functional lineup that included Cruz -- back from a two-game absence due to illness -- and Wander Franco, who extended his on-base streak to 40 games with a walk in the sixth inning.
Kiermaier dropped a fly-ball double down the left-field line to drive in two runs in the fourth, and Francisco Mejía knocked a two-out, two-run single to center in the fifth. In the seventh, Kiermaier hit a fly ball to center that bounced over outfielder Magneuris Sierra’s head, giving the speedy Kiermaier time to zip around the bases for his sixth triple of the season.
“I feel really good. I'm confident. It's just about simplifying things,” said Kiermaier, who’s hit .286 since June 6 to increase his average from .203 to .255. “I'm OK with hitting all singles. I want singles, walks, whatever. I just want to get on base and let the big boys drive me in, and that's been my M.O. throughout this whole second half.”
The one-sided victory put the Rays on the brink of the franchise’s fourth AL East championship, the top regular-season goal they set back in Spring Training. The defending AL champs have bigger goals in October, of course, but winning a division title at home -- something they weren’t able to do in 2008, 2010 or last year -- would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Soon, they hope.
“That's obviously the goal, is to win your division and then continue off and go deep into the playoffs and play for a World Series,” Yarbrough said. “I know it's all a cliché. It's something we can't really control. … But we're just going to try to handle things on our end, and everything will just kind of figure itself out.”