Baserunning brilliance gives Rays series win over Blue Jays

Tampa Bay goes 7-for-7 in stolen bases as Eflin dominates on the mound

May 25th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- One look at third baseman ’ dirt-caked uniform told you everything about how the Rays defeated the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Thursday afternoon.

Tampa Bay is on pace for more than 300 home runs this season, but its 6-3 victory featured less bash and more dash. Hustle, aggressive baserunning and a perfect 7-for-7 line in stolen bases were the recipe for success.

“You’re going to have to find ways to win ballgames without slugging every now and then,” said Walls. “Today, we had guys on base, had good opportunities to take advantage of the stuff that we had. The situations pretty much told us when to [run] and we just trusted it and went.”

Walls recorded two of those seven steals, which matched a season high that Tampa Bay set on May 17 vs. the Mets and is one shy of the franchise record. No other MLB team has stolen more than six bases in a game this season, and the last club to nab as many bases without being caught were the 2017 Nationals.

According to Walls, the Rays “felt like they had something” on Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah once they got on base. While credit was given to first-base coach Chris Prieto’s scouting report, no state secrets were divulged. Regardless, the club repeatedly made the most of that vulnerability, as evidenced by the third inning.

That’s when Walls stole second following a walk and then pulled off a double steal with first baseman as the trail runner. The throw to third from Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk was low and skidded away from third baseman Matt Chapman, allowing Walls to come home while Raley gained an extra 90 feet.  made Toronto pay for that error with a cue shot to first base that was enough to bring Raley in and expand Tampa Bay’s lead.

“Sometimes you’ve got to push it a little bit, and I thought the guys did,” manager Kevin Cash said. “There were a lot of heads-up baserunning plays. A lot of steals, going to second. The Walls steal going to third was huge.”

Shortstop Wander Franco also stole two bags, giving him a team-high 17. After recording 10 steals over his first two seasons, Franco is on pace to become the first Ray to surpass 50 stolen bases since outfielder Carl Crawford did it in 2009.

Tampa Bay leads the Majors in steals (62) and attempts (78), but its baserunning brilliance extends to specific hustle plays that won’t be found on any statistical leaderboard.

For example, after  tied the score at 1-1 with an RBI single, Brandon Lowe whiffed on a pitch in the dirt that should have been the second out of the frame. But instead of giving up, Lowe took off for first as the ball skipped away from Kirk.

The hustle paid off, as the ball spun back toward the first-base line. Once Kirk fielded it along the chalk, his throw to the bag was late and Lowe was ruled safe after review. Then, Harold Ramírez’s sharp grounder to second could have been an inning-ending double play, but the ball was bobbled by Cavan Biggio, and Ramírez legged out the throw to first, allowing Arozarena to come home on a fielder’s choice.

“It’s easy to assume that when you swing and miss, you have no chance, but Brandon recognized it and put it in gear,” Cash said. “Harold, he always does such a good job of getting down the baseline.”

By the start of the fourth inning, the Rays held a 5-1 lead, knocking Manoah out of the game and cruising behind starter , who scattered six hits and two walks over seven innings. The righty said he didn’t feel great when he woke up this morning, and he knew this would be a “grinder day” for him. Although Eflin failed to record a strikeout, his stuff enabled him to get 12 groundouts, including two double plays against the speedy Kevin Kiermaier.

Eflin became the first Rays starting pitcher since Mark Hendrickson in 2004 to go at least seven innings without a strikeout.

“I think that’s honestly pretty impressive, to go seven innings with zero [strikeouts],” said Eflin. “I think that’s harder to do than seven innings and 10 strikeouts. It was just one of those days where I was praying they were going to ground into double plays and just get early contact.”

Next up for the Rays is a three-game series at home vs. the Dodgers, beginning Friday. The two powerhouses haven’t met since the 2020 World Series, when Los Angeles prevailed in six games.

Cash said he has a lot of great memories from that Fall Classic, despite the loss. Arozarena, in his debut year, turned in one of the best postseason performances in MLB history. When asked Wednesday what he remembers most about that magical run, he made it clear that the defeat still stings.

“What I remember is that we lost against them,” Arozarena said via interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s a very different team. I’m looking forward to this weekend. … 2020 was 2020, and it’s in the past.”