ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox needed something special to end a 13-game losing streak at Tropicana Field that dated back to April 22, 2022.
They got it in various forms, and the common denominator was talented youth, which led Boston to a 7-3 victory over the Rays in Monday afternoon’s opener of a three-game series.
Triston Casas, on the one-year anniversary of his MLB debut and in the midst of a torrid second half of the season, hammered a game-changing three-run homer to left-center in the top of the sixth.
Then there was Brayan Bello, who pitched his team into a 3-0 hole in the bottom of the first inning, only to be lights out for the rest of the day.
With their third straight win, the Red Sox (72-66) moved to within 4 1/2 games of the Rangers for the final American League Wild Card spot, the closest Boston has been since Aug. 27. The Red Sox hold a 2-1 edge in the season series against Texas, and the teams play a three-game series in Arlington from Sept. 18-20. The winner of the head-to-head series claims the first tiebreaker if two teams are tied in the standings.
The Blue Jays are a half-game behind Texas, but they lead Boston by four games. The Red Sox, who have already clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Blue Jays, have a three-game series in Toronto from Sept. 15-17.
Per FanGraphs, Boston has an 8.1% chance to make the postseason.
Despite the uptick in playoff odds, Monday was more about two key pieces of the team’s core going forward than October.
Casas seems to become a bigger force by the week. His 23rd homer of the season -- a certified rocket that left his bat at 105.9 mph and traveled a Statcast-projected 419 feet to the opposite field -- turned the team's two-run deficit into a one-run lead.
Fittingly, Tropicana Field is where Casas belted his first Major League homer on Sept. 6, 2022.
“It’s just the most special day of my life, so I’ll always mark it on my calendar as a pretty special day in my book,” Casas said of the one-year anniversary of his debut. “Yeah, I did know. And it was pretty cool a year ago today being here, too. I thought that was pretty weird, too. Lots of coincidences, for sure.”
As for Bello, he went six innings, allowing five hits and just those three runs. He walked two and struck out seven.
To have any shot at the playoffs, the Red Sox will need better starting pitching than they’ve received in recent weeks. Bello’s six-inning performance marked the first time a Boston starter recorded more than 15 outs in a game since Bello went seven innings in Houston on Aug. 24.
The key for Bello on Monday was keeping his composure after things went wrong in the first inning.
“Throwing strikes was the plan from the jump. That first inning, I fell behind a bunch of hitters, but that’s what it takes to be in the big leagues, to make adjustments,” said Bello. “In the second, I made adjustments and kept the same routine. It felt good to just keep them at bay like that, give time for the offense to do their thing, which they ended up doing.”
The development of Bello and Casas is as important as anything that has happened for the Red Sox this season.
“Compared to last year? A lot better,” manager Alex Cora said of Bello. “I remember there was a game here last year that happened and he was in the tunnel just kind of like, ‘What's going on?’ That's part of it.”
Bello remembers those growing pains well.
“Last year, whenever I would have a bad inning or things were going bad, they would snowball a little bit on me and I would get mad at myself in those moments,” Bello said. “But now, I’m able to block those things out.”
Casas, who got off to a rough start this season, has also made a big jump on the mental side. Cora recently mentioned that the 23-year-old has become a leader in hitters’ meetings, which is rare for a rookie.
In 147 at-bats since the All-Star break, Casas has a slash line of .340/.443/.680 with 14 homers.
“He’s a good hitter, man. He knows what he's doing. He's very patient with his process and he dominates the strike zone,” said Cora. “Numbers-wise, he's probably one of the top 10 hitters in the league. And he keeps getting better.”