Round 1 of the heavyweight battle for wild-card supremacy in the American League was won decisively Thursday by the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays will face the Toronto Blue Jays in the second matchup of their four-game series Friday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tampa Bay started the week with three consecutive losses against the Houston Astros during which the Rays managed two runs total.
It was a different story on Thursday, though, as Tampa Bay (83-67) battered Toronto (84-66) by a 10-5 margin and moved to within one game of its AL East rival in the chase for the top wild-card spot.
The Rays — 50-28 at home — joined the Astros and the New York Yankees as the only AL clubs to reach the half-century mark in home wins.
In an attack that produced a trio of three-run innings, the Rays saw the top five players in their batting order go a combined 11-for-23 (.478) with eight runs and nine RBIs.
Rookie Jonathan Aranda, who hit a leadoff homer to set the tone, said bouncing back from the Houston series was crucial with less than two weeks left in the regular season.
“The last series was a little tough for us, but we can’t give up,” Aranda said. “Every series is just as important. We have to keep moving forward.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash said an injured-list stint for Ryan Yarbrough (right oblique strain) is “highly likely” after the left-hander was removed from the Thursday game.
The Blue Jays lost for the fifth time in their past 20 road games.
While Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 14-game hitting streak ended, Bo Bichette kept sizzling by going 2-for-4 with an RBI double.
In September, the shortstop is batting .427 (38-for-89) with 10 doubles, a triple, seven homers and 24 RBIs in 21 games. Bichette has 42 doubles, tied him for the AL lead with the Cleveland Guardians’ Jose Ramirez.
Interim Toronto manager John Schneider, taking a long-term view, said ace Alek Manoah would start either the final regular-season game or the wild-card opener.
“I think there would be nothing better than playing in front of our fans in the postseason after the last couple (pandemic) years,” Schneider said.
Toronto’s Mitch White (1-6, 5.05 ERA) will start Friday. The right-hander is 0-4 with a 7.47 ERA in seven games (six starts) for the Blue Jays since being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 2.
He has no record and a 4.50 ERA in one career appearance against Tampa Bay — a six-inning relief outing on Sept. 13 in Toronto.
In the second game of the four-game series, Tampa Bay will send out its most reliable pitcher of late, reliever-turned-starter Jeffrey Springs (9-4, 2.45 ERA).
With Shane McClanahan’s shoulder issue and recent poor outing plus two straight bad starts by Drew Rasmussen (one against Toronto), Springs has sprung out as Cash’s most reliable arm.
In September, the left-hander is 3-0 with a 0.89 ERA, allowing just three runs (two earned) and 14 hits in 20 1/3 innings. He has fanned 20 and walked six in four starts.
On Sept. 13 in Canada, he beat the Blue Jays by firing six scoreless frames and yielding just three hits in Tampa Bay’s 4-2 win.
Across nine total appearances (two starts) in his career against Toronto, he sports a 2-0 slate with a 2.18 ERA. The Blue Jays have hit .221 against the 30-year-old North Carolina native.
–Field Level Media