Fast-starting offense helps Rays tighten WC race

September 23rd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays bounced back from being swept by the Astros, pulled within a game of the top American League Wild Card spot and broke out of their team-wide slump in a big way Thursday night.

After being held to two runs over the previous three days against Houston, Tampa Bay scored early and often in a 10-5 victory over Toronto at Tropicana Field. The top of the Rays’ lineup provided a spark for a team desperately in need of one, as each of its first five hitters -- , , , and  -- recorded multiple hits and drove in at least one run.

“That's what a good team does: Turn the page,” said Peralta, who drove in two runs. “It's baseball. You're going to have ups and downs, and we got a little bit down in the last series. But we just responded the way we should, and that's the type of team that we are.”

The Blue Jays are still on top in the tightly bunched three-team Wild Card race, but the Rays have cut their lead in half. The Mariners are only a half-game behind the Rays after beating the A’s, 9-5, on Thursday afternoon.

With the win, the Rays’ magic number to secure a spot in the postseason dropped to eight. By taking at least one of the next three games, they could clinch the tiebreaker in terms of Wild Card seeding if the AL East rivals finish the regular season with identical records. Tampa Bay is leading the season series, 9-7.

“This could be a Wild Card matchup, possibly, and we understand that. So it'll be exciting, for sure -- maybe a preview of what's to come,” said Jeffrey Springs, who will start Friday night. “We feel like every one's kind of like a playoff atmosphere, playoff game, and you know the importance of it, so it'll be a lot of fun.”

The Rays had lost nine of their previous 13, averaging only 3.2 runs per game during that stretch. They’d scored three runs or fewer in 11 of their past 19 games and two runs or fewer in nine of them. But that was all brushed aside Thursday night -- pretty much immediately.

Aranda smashed his first career leadoff homer off José Berríos, then Arozarena doubled in a run and scored on a wild pitch to cap a three-run, 31-pitch first inning.

“Aranda came with the big homer, and it was like, 'OK, here we go. That's how the game's gonna be,’” Peralta said.

The Rays didn’t make it any easier on Berríos in the second, forcing him to throw 43 pitches as they grinded out three more runs on consecutive hits by Aranda, Margot, Franco and Arozarena. It was no coincidence Franco and Arozarena were on their game in the middle of an offensive outburst, something Tampa Bay saw throughout their dominant second halves last season.

“They've got to be who they are,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And if they are, we're that much better of a team.”

The Rays’ top five hitters went a combined 11-for-23 with four doubles, one homer and nine RBIs. They stayed on the attack in a three-run fourth, seeing 31 pitches from relievers Trevor Richards and Zach Pop. Franco had the biggest hit in that rally, a two-run double to center. He drove in three runs on the night, matching the career-high RBI total he set in his MLB debut, and extended his hitting streak to nine games.

“Fortunately, I feel really good,” Franco, who’s batting .333 during his streak, said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I'm starting to feel a little bit more like I had felt at the beginning of the year, and I've made little adjustments that hopefully I can continue on for the rest of the year.”

The Rays’ pitching, meanwhile, shrugged off three early runs and an injury to left-hander Ryan Yarbrough. Yarbrough allowed two in the second before exiting two pitches into the third due to right side discomfort. 

But Garrett Cleavinger stepped in to pitch two scoreless innings, then Shawn Armstrong, Brooks Raley, Colin Poche and Dusten Knight put up zeroes until Whit Merrifield hit a two-run homer in the ninth.

“We called down there and obviously said that we're going to kind of have all hands on deck and piece it together,” Cash said. “They really enjoy embracing that moment where they're going to be worked and we've got to lean on them, and we did.”