ST. PETERSBURG -- About 80 minutes before Chris Archer’s first pitch Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, the Rays lost designated hitter Nelson Cruz to the COVID-19-related IL. After one inning against the White Sox, they lost first baseman Ji-Man Choi to a hamstring injury. An inning later, they lost Archer for the rest of the game due to a left hip issue.
But the Rays won Sunday’s series finale against the American League Central-leading White Sox, 9-0. They won the series, taking two of three from another first-place team. And as they’ve so often done this season, they won despite dealing with a barrage of injuries that would’ve decimated the depth of most teams.
The Rays maintained their position atop the AL East, and kept the AL’s best overall record (77-48) for the 17th consecutive day, as they won for the sixth time in their past seven games and the 24th time in 35 games since the All-Star break. It was another day full of injuries and another impressive win in a season full of both.
“We know how important those guys are,” rookie shortstop Wander Franco said. “But we also know that, if somebody goes down, we have everybody who can work to make up for that lost person.”
Archer’s anticipated return to the Rays’ rotation didn’t go as planned, as he exited the game due to left hip tightness after only two innings. How would a bullpen with 13 relievers on the injured list handle that workload? By piecing together Tampa Bay’s 10th shutout of the season, going from Archer to Shawn Armstrong to Adam Conley to Chris Mazza and, finally, Josh Fleming.
Consider where those arms came from: Armstrong was an unheralded Trade Deadline acquisition from the Orioles; Conley had spent the entire season in Triple-A until last weekend; Mazza has been called up, sent down and called back up in the past three days; and Fleming, who became the 11th different Rays pitcher to record a save this season with his three-inning effort, was bumped to the bullpen to make room for Archer.
“Look, that's what these guys do,” manager Kevin Cash said. “They make the most and embrace the moment, whatever situation occurs. ... It was just so crucial to us winning the game.”
Take Mazza, for instance. He was optioned to Triple-A on Saturday and planned to join Durham on Monday. He was on a boat Sunday morning in Fort Myers, Fla., fishing with his brother-in-law, when his phone rang at 11:30 a.m. ET. It was Cash, and he had a question: “Where are you?” The Rays wanted Mazza to get back to Tropicana Field to fill Cruz’s spot on the active roster.
“Good thing we were fishing inshore,” Mazza said.
Mazza got in the car and drove north, made it to the ballpark in the second inning and, before he could think too much about the situation, found himself on the mound to finish the fifth in what was at that point a 3-0 game. The White Sox put runners on second and third in the sixth, but Mazza struck out Andrew Vaughn -- an out Cash called “huge” at that point of the game -- to escape the jam.
From fishing to pitching, days like this are why Mazza keeps his phone by his side.
“Always, always, always,” Mazza said, smiling. “You never know when you’re going to get that phone call. You want to be ready. You never want to miss it.”
The Rays built up an early lead, as Choi doubled and scored on an RBI single by Austin Meadows. Choi then exited the game due to left hamstring tightness and was replaced by Yandy Díaz. That left Tampa Bay with a two-man bench and without the designated hitter and first baseman Cash had planned to start Sunday.
How would the Rays respond? By putting up nine runs, the 12th time in the past 16 games they’ve scored at least eight.
It was more of the same for a lineup that’s scored 5.31 runs per game this season and an MLB-best 6.79 per game since July 23, and it sealed a season series split with Chicago.
“It’s really good. We know they’re a good ballclub over there,” Franco said. “We’ve just got to keep playing our game.”
Díaz began the Rays’ rally in the third inning, knocking a two-out single to center and scoring on Franco’s double. Franco, who extended the Majors’ longest active on-base streak to 24 games, came around to score on Meadows’ single to center. Meadows also drove in Franco in the seventh to push his RBI total to 88, one shy of the career-high mark he set in 2019.
The Rays broke the game open in the sixth, though. Franco doubled to left, then the White Sox intentionally walked Randy Arozarena and unintentionally walked Brett Phillips to load the bases with two outs. Chicago turned to right-hander José Ruiz, and Francisco Mejía greeted him with a bases-clearing double to right-center.
“We've got a lot of options on any day, any night, to put together a really, really good lineup that can tax any pitching staff,” Cash said.