Not long after the final out of a tense 2-0 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night, Rays catcher Mike Zunino walked into the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre and told his Tampa Bay teammates, “That’s what a playoff game feels like.”
The way things are going right now, it might not be the last time the Rays and the Blue Jays experience that feeling.
Right-hander Drew Rasmussen shut out Toronto’s sizzling lineup for five innings, continuing to prove why he belongs in Tampa Bay’s postseason rotation, and Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe launched a pair of solo homers to snap the Rays’ brief two-game losing streak.
The victory made the Rays (90-55) the first team in the American League to reach the 90-win mark and restored their lead in the AL East to nine games with 17 to play. Tampa Bay’s magic number to clinch the club’s second straight AL East title is down to nine, and its magic number to clinch a spot in the postseason sits at eight.
The Rays aren’t looking too far ahead, not with a tough schedule that includes four more matchups with the Blue Jays, who are in a tie atop the AL Wild Card standings. But Tampa Bay can clinch a postseason spot as soon as Saturday, and Tuesday night’s win against the Majors’ hottest team -- featuring a lineup that’s laid waste to every pitching staff it’s seen lately -- provided a preview of what awaits it in October.
“To go out there and see how well our pitching staff did, and then also as well as our defense played, I think that really gives our team a lot of confidence. We can match up with anyone, the best of them,” said Rasmussen, who allowed two hits and a walk while striking out three. “We have a ton of confidence in our guys and in our clubhouse. If we just go out and we take care of business on our end, we're going to be in a good position here in a couple weeks.”
The Blue Jays entered Tuesday’s matchup having won 15 of their previous 17 games while scoring 128 runs during that stretch. But Rasmussen was up for the challenge, as he’s been at every turn since moving out of the bullpen to join the Rays’ rotation last month.
Rasmussen has allowed only four runs over 27 innings in six outings since becoming a “true” starter, albeit one who is limited to four or five innings each time out due to workload concerns. The Rays have won five of those games. Zunino recently called him a “game changer” for Tampa Bay’s postseason rotation, and Lowe added another superlative Tuesday night.
“He has been nothing short of incredible for us,” Lowe said.
Rasmussen presented an interesting matchup for the Blue Jays’ powerful bats. They typically feast on fastballs, and the right-hander leans on his heater as much as just about anyone. But he kept Toronto in check by pounding the strike zone (35 of 52 pitches for strikes), locating his fastball well (while throwing it 65 percent of the time) and letting the Rays’ defense handle the rest.
The Blue Jays made plenty of loud contact, but Tampa Bay made plays all night. Joey Wendle pulled off a handful of nice plays at shortstop, he and Lowe turned a double play to end the first and Manuel Margot was all over the place in center field.
“The last thing you want to do is give a good team -- and certainly a hot team -- any type of extra outs,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “If we can prevent them, maybe taking some hits away, that works as well. We did that tonight really, really well.”
Rasmussen ran into trouble when he gave up a leadoff double to George Springer and walked Marcus Semien in the fourth to bring up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who took three straight fastballs outside the zone. Guerrero unloaded on the next fastball from Rasmussen, crushing it 113.4 mph … right to Margot for the first out of the inning.
“At that point, OK, it's big-boy baseball. You've got to throw the baseball over the plate. He knows what's coming,” Rasmussen said. “With how good our defense is, I trust anyone to go run that ball down in the outfield, and Manny did a good job and he really helped me out.”
With one big threat behind him, Rasmussen struck out Bo Bichette and retired Teoscar Hernández to preserve the 1-0 lead that Choi’s second-inning homer gave the Rays. It was the only inning in which Rasmussen faced more than three hitters.
“When you see those guys coming up, those are not the guys that you want coming up with opportunities to score,” Cash said. “But Ras kept his composure really well.”
Lowe homered off left-hander Tim Mayza in the eighth to give Tampa Bay’s bullpen some breathing room. Pete Fairbanks, JT Chargois, David Robertson and Andrew Kittredge each delivered a scoreless inning to seal the Rays’ 11th shutout victory of the season. It was only the third time the Blue Jays have been blanked this year.
“I feel like we've always known they're a very good team. As the world has seen in the past week or so, they're going to be a playoff team. So without a doubt, we have a very good shot at facing them again,” Lowe said. “It definitely felt very postseason-like, like every at-bat was tense on both sides of the diamond. It was a good feeling. You always feel better when you come out with a win.”