ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays finally ended their strange losing streak against the Mariners and finished an important nine-game homestand on a high note Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
Facing Seattle for the seventh and final time this season, the Rays put together a 4-3 win to cap a 5-4 stand at The Trop against three postseason contenders: the Yankees, Red Sox and Mariners. The series-salvaging victory prevented the Rays from being swept in a series for the fourth time this season and in a season series against an American League opponent for just the third time in franchise history after losing their first six games against Seattle this year.
Better late than never, right?
“It felt really good. Guys are joking in the clubhouse, like, ‘No one season-sweeps us. They may get one series sweep, but they don’t do it again,’” starter Josh Fleming said. “It was just nice to get the win going into the off-day and going into the long road trip.”
And it was an uplifting end to a long stay at home that was eventful, to say the least.
The past nine days saw the Rays lose two of three to the Yankees, sweep the Red Sox in a series that included the first Sunday Night Baseball game here in a decade, move into first place in the American League East, trade Diego Castillo to the Mariners for reliever JT Chargois and prospect Austin Shenton, add some depth to their roster before Friday’s Trade Deadline, officially lose ace Tyler Glasnow to season-ending Tommy John surgery then drop two in a row to the Mariners before winning Wednesday to ensure they’d stay atop the division heading into their upcoming road trip to Baltimore, Boston and Minnesota.
“We knew that this was going to be a grind of a homestand,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We were facing three good teams, all with good records, and we seemed to battle well with the first two and even Seattle. … It is nice to come out of the homestand with a winning record.”
Seattle struck first in the series finale, as Dylan Moore singled and eventually scored on a base hit by J.P. Crawford in the third inning against Fleming. The left-hander minimized the damage after that, permitting two runs on five hits while striking out six over five innings. Fleming was on top of his soft contact-inducing game, too, allowing a career-low average exit velocity of 78.4 mph, according to Statcast, and yielding only three hard-hit balls.
“It just seemed like any pitch I wanted to throw, [catcher Mike Zunino] was putting it down,” Fleming said. “Any time you have that connection going early, it’s a good thing.”
Tampa Bay pulled ahead in the bottom of the third, albeit in unusual fashion. Brandon Lowe hit a leadoff double to right off Mariners starter Logan Gilbert, then Ji-Man Choi walked to put two runners on. Randy Arozarena stung a line drive to center field, but Jarred Kelenic lost it in the lights as he left his feet to dive for it. The ball skipped to the outfield wall as Lowe and Choi scored on Arozarena’s RBI triple, then Joey Wendle made it a 3-1 game with a sacrifice fly to center.
“Once I saw it fall in, I decided to take off and I was keeping my eye out on the runners in front of me,” Arozarena said of his triple through interpreter Manny Navarro. “In a situation like that, especially the situation we’re in in the standings, we’ve got to find any way to continue to put up runs one way or another.”
The Rays survived an outfield mishap of their own in the sixth. Leading off the inning against Fleming, Mitch Haniger hit a hard ground ball to where a non-shifted shortstop might have stood. But the ball sped by the second baseman Lowe and into the gap, where Arozarena slid for it but didn’t stop it. The ball kicked away from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, too, allowing Haniger to reach third base and eventually score on Kyle Seager’s sacrifice fly against Chargois.
Zunino provided an insurance run in the sixth with his 21st home run of the season, a 109.2 mph blast to center off reliever Drew Steckenrider. The All-Star catcher is hitting just .156 in 13 games since the break, but two of his five hits have been homers -- and the one he hit Wednesday was key for him and the Rays.
“I felt like the swing’s trending in the right direction,” Zunino said. “To be able to get there, get to a fastball and just drive it felt good. Been a good couple of days of working with [hitting coach Chad Mottola], so to see it translate is nice.”
Zunino’s solo shot turned out to be necessary, too, as the Mariners made it a one-run game in the eighth by scoring on two hits and a wild pitch by Matt Wisler. But Tampa Bay’s bullpen, remade out of necessity due to injuries, held on as Ryan Sherriff recorded his second career save with a perfect ninth inning.
With that, the Rays took the field to celebrate a welcome victory, a winning homestand -- and, maybe, the end of their season series with the Mariners.
“It's good to win the last one,” Zunino said. “It's one of those things where I can't put a finger on it. A couple breaks here and there, get flat-out beat a couple of games. It's just how it is. It's baseball. It's funny like that.
“But maybe it's a better thing that our series with them is done.”