Rays (26-6!) doing something not seen since '84 Tigers

Eflin's best start of '23 helps Tampa Bay move to 20 games over .500 after 32 contests

May 4th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays signed  to the largest free-agent contract in franchise history, president of baseball operations Erik Neander praised the right-hander’s elite command and deep, varied arsenal. He’ll hit the corners of the strike zone, execute pitches and mess with hitters’ timing.

“In an era of power and velocity,” Neander said in December, “he’s an artist.”

Eflin painted his first masterpiece in a Rays uniform in their 3-2 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field, striking out 10 batters without a walk while allowing only three hits over seven scoreless innings.

The victory sealed the Rays’ sixth sweep of the season and improved their record to 26-6, making them the fastest team to reach 20 games over .500 since the 1984 Tigers did so in 28 games. (The quickest team to that point since 1901 had been the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who got off to a 22-2 start.) Only six other AL/NL clubs in the Modern Era have won at least 26 of their first 32 games, and Tampa Bay is the first team to do so since the ‘84 Tigers started 27-5.

“It's like the only thing this clubhouse knows how to do is win,” Eflin said. “It's awesome to be in a clubhouse where we go out and we just take care of business every single night. It's been so much fun.”

The Rays have won each of Eflin’s five starts this season, and Thursday’s outing was his finest yet. He breezed through his start on only 80 pitches and became just the third Tampa Bay starter this season to complete seven innings, the first since Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen did so in back-to-back games on April 8-9.

After being disappointed with his command last Friday in Chicago, Eflin put together his first career start with double-digit strikeouts and zero walks. Eflin was pleased with the way he got ahead in counts, called his sinker “dominant” and praised catcher Christian Bethancourt for being “a rock behind the plate.”

The only issue Eflin encountered came before the second inning, when he said the umpiring crew told him he would be ejected if he didn’t remove the rubber wedding ring on his left hand. He put the ring in his pocket (then on his necklace) and proceeded with his dominant performance.

“A lot of swing and miss, and a lot of pitch execution,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Some guys out-stuff you. Some guys out-execute you. He's got a little bit of a combination of both. … They just couldn’t get him timed up.”

Eflin generated 13 swinging strikes from the Pirates, but seven of his punchouts came on called third strikes. Pirates manager Derek Shelton noted the movement on Eflin’s sinker and the way his cutter played off that pitch, and Rays second baseman  pointed to the same combination.

“It was like a video game,” Walls said. “When you have two pitches that are working [with] complete opposite shapes of each other, and you can put them on either side of the plate -- I feel like as a hitter, at that point, you've got to pick and choose what you're going to look for. You can't cover both.”

The Rays managed only five hits against starter Vince Velasquez and four Pirates relievers, but three of them were solo homers. It was Tampa Bay’s 12th game this year with at least three homers, the highest total in the Majors and only one fewer than the team had all of last season.

Walls went deep for the fifth time this season in the second inning off Velasquez, giving Eflin an early lead. The Rays improved to 21-0 when scoring first, surpassing the 1990 Reds to set a Modern-Era record for consecutive wins when scoring first to begin a season.

“That's the goal. I think we're always trying to do that. It's easier said than done,” Cash said. “It's reflective of a good offense and very reflective of a pitching staff. When you give them a little cushion, they know how to navigate through it.”

and  each homered to the opposite field to build up the Rays’ lead, insurance they wound up needing when reliever Jason Adam allowed a two-run double to Carlos Santana in the ninth inning.

After studying how reliever Jose Hernandez pitched to Jose Siri on Wednesday, Arozarena reached down for a changeup and hit it out to right in the fourth inning for his eighth home run. Facing Robert Stephenson in the eighth, Díaz poked a slider just over the right-field fence for his eighth homer.

“Just very strong men,” Cash quipped.