Rays rally late AGAIN as confidence abounds

Mejía slugs go-ahead 3-run HR in 9th to 'pick up' McHugh

August 26th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- In the volatile profession of relief pitching, Collin McHugh has been as close as it gets to a sure thing this season. The right-hander hadn’t given up an earned run in three months when he scaled the mound to pitch the eighth inning with a one-run lead Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park. The last home run he allowed was on April 3, in his Rays debut, against the first batter he faced all season.

So when Rhys Hoskins hit a game-tying homer to left field off McHugh with two outs in the eighth, the Rays were stunned, first and foremost. But they were also motivated.

“That kind of feeling of how good he’s been for us for the past three months, I think, kind of lit a fire under our guys,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “We’re like, ‘We need to pick him up like he’s been picking us up for three months.’”

They did exactly that, engineering yet another late-inning rally capped by Francisco Mejía’s three-run homer off Zack Wheeler to secure a 7-4 win over the Phillies and a two-game road sweep. The Rays have won four straight games to improve to an American League-best 79-48, a season-high 31 games over .500. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and 26 of 37 since the All-Star break to hold off the surging Yankees and maintain a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL East.

They won Wednesday night as they often do. They played what manager Kevin Cash called “awesome” defense all over the field, came from behind and scored late. The Rays overcame an early one-run deficit and scored four runs in the final two innings, meaning they have now trailed in 39 of their 79 wins this season and they’ve now scored a Major League-leading 253 runs in the seventh inning or later.

One late-inning rally wasn’t enough Wednesday night. Fortunately for the Rays, they never seem to run out of them.

“We don’t worry. We don’t like to give in,” Mejía said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “That’s part of the game, and we had a lot of confidence.”

Lowe’s 30th home run of the season gave the Rays a two-run lead in the fifth, but that was erased when Bryce Harper took reliever Shawn Armstrong deep after an early exit by left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, who threw a season-low 55 pitches in four-plus innings.

With one out in the eighth, Wander Franco hit a low line drive that diving second baseman Jean Segura couldn’t grab, allowing Franco to reach on an infield single. He took off from first base on Wheeler’s next pitch and Joey Wendle executed the hit-and-run to perfection with a single to right field. Randy Arozarena then slapped a broken-bat grounder past Wheeler, and Franco scored what was then the go-ahead run as shortstop Freddy Galvis took the out at first rather than attempting to turn an inning-ending double play.

But the Rays’ lead was short-lived. McHugh, riding a franchise-record streak of 33 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run, gave up a game-tying homer to Hoskins with two outs in the eighth. McHugh hadn’t been charged with an earned run since May 24, a streak spanning 17 appearances.

“He’s set a pretty high standard for himself, so it was a little shocking,” Cash said. “He's picked us up, so it was nice we were able to go out there and pick him up.”

Wheeler, a potential National League Cy Young Award candidate, returned to the mound to start the ninth. Yandy Díaz singled to right field and Kevin Kiermaier slapped an 0-2 fastball just inside the third-base line for a double, bringing up Mejía. The switch-hitting catcher fell behind, 0-2, then launched a high fastball a Statcast-projected 409 feet to right field to give Tampa Bay a three-run lead.

It was the 32nd home run by a Tampa Bay catcher this season, with Mike Zunino responsible for 26 and Mejía tallying his sixth. If you feel like Mejía has made a habit of delivering clutch hits in his first season with the Rays, you’re not alone.

“He’s got a knack for coming up with guys on base and getting that big hit,” Cash said. “Especially in those late-game heroics, he’s kind of shown the ability to hit anybody’s fastball. He gets locked in.”

“It feels like all of his homers seem to be in huge spots, and none of them are solo. It feels like he’s driving in three or four runs every single time he hits a homer,” Lowe said. “It’s something in his at-bats, something in his genes. He’s just really comfortable up there in big situations.”

Indeed, Mejía now has eight tie-breaking hits this season, including four in the ninth inning or later. On Aug. 10, he hit a tie-breaking, three-run single off Matt Barnes at Fenway Park in the Rays’ 8-4 win. On May 24 against the Blue Jays, he sparked a seven-run 11th inning with a tie-breaking single in a 14-8 victory. Three days before that, he launched a go-ahead grand slam in the 12th inning of a 9-5 win in Dunedin, Fla. Add Wednesday’s big blast to the list.

So yes, he’s had his fair share of late-inning moments for a team that’s had more than its fair share of late-inning action. The Rays lead the Majors with 92 runs scored in the eighth inning and 73 in the ninth, and they’re outscoring opponents by 140 runs from the sixth inning on this season.

“If it’s not one person, it’s the other. We all have the same confidence to help each other and support each other,” Mejía said. “We all have the confidence that someone’s going to do something.”