ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays won the American League East, secured the AL’s top seed and with a 5-0 win over the Phillies on Sunday at Tropicana Field, added being the lone AL team to win 40 games to their list of team accomplishments.
The next challenge for the Rays (40-20) will come in the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays, who are the No. 8 seed. Game 1 between the division foes will take place on Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
“If you’re in [the postseason] right now, every team is going to present its challenges,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We have a fairly good idea of that team, as they do with us. I can bet they’re going to be very well prepared knowing [Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo], and certainly Ross Atkins, their general manager. Impressive group, young group, energetic group, and we’ll have our hands full.”
But before the Rays started thinking about their postseason opponent, they handed the ball off to Josh Fleming in Sunday’s regular-season finale, and the left-hander capped off his rookie season in impressive fashion.
Fleming tossed six innings, striking out five while allowing four hits and one walk. He kept the Phillies’ lineup off balance on Sunday, holding them to just four hard-hit balls. With the win, Fleming and the Rays eliminated the Phillies, who could have clinched a postseason berth because the Brewers and Giants lost, from contention.
“I felt really good out there,” Fleming said. “I was getting a lot of ground balls. But you know, the goal for today was just to throw strike one and get ahead of the batters. And I thought, other than that hiccup in the fourth, I did a pretty good job of that.”
By throwing 90 pitches on Sunday, Fleming wouldn’t be available to pitch until at least Thursday, which makes it likely that he won’t be on the Wild Card Series roster unless the Rays see value in having his length available in a potential Game 3. Regardless of the decision, Fleming would play a key role in the AL Division Series, if the Rays make it that far.
With no off-days until the World Series, the Rays are going to need to take advantage of their starting-pitching depth over the next month. It all remains to be seen, but Fleming made his case on Sunday.
“Flem has helped us get to this point, and he’s very much appreciated,” Cash said. “Since he’s been here, it seems like every time he’s on the mound, he’s given us a chance to win. For these games or these starts or bulk days to be his first reps at the big league level, he’s been just awesome for us.”
Oliver Drake also recorded an encouraging outing for Tampa Bay. Drake, who was an integral part of last year’s bullpen, has battled injuries this season and has been looking for consistency. Drake tossed a clean seventh on Sunday, recording two swings and misses on his signature splitter.
Over his last two starts, Drake has four swings and misses on the splitter and has tossed back-to-back scoreless innings after allowing three runs against the Mets on Wednesday. When right, Drake could help the Rays against tough left-handed hitters in the postseason.
The Rays wrapped up the regular season by winning nine of their last 11 games, and they hope that momentum carries over into the postseason.
“I think we’re playing well,” said Michael Brosseau, who collected an RBI triple. “It’s a new season. In a three-game series like this first round, crazy things can happen, so we have to make sure we’re on our ‘A’ game.”
Phillips leaves game
Brett Phillips was removed from Sunday’s finale as a precaution due to right hamstring tightness. He was replaced by Kevan Smith in the lineup and by Randy Arozarena in center field. Michael Perez moved from catcher to first base, his third appearance at the position in his career.
After the game, Cash said the team is “hopeful” that Phillips will be fine and ready for the postseason.
“His hamstring tightened up on him,” Cash said. “Really didn’t want to take a chance.”