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Rays 1 Nats 0: WTF?

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This game. This team.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed today’s game, and just checked a box score a bit later, you’d think you’d missed a pitchers’ duel.

And you’d be right, because what else can you call a game with a 1-0 final score? A total of eight hits?

But you didn’t just miss a pitchers’ duel. You missed five innings of no-hit ball. You missed a bench-clearing — brawl? gathering? rave? flash mob? You missed some crazy strategy that sort of didn’t work until it did. You missed Jose Alvardo playing first base.

You missed the Rays second series sweep in a row of a strong, contending team.

Yes, the Rays are still under .500 (but just one game). Yes, their path to the post season is pretty hard to discern. But after trading away just about every marquee name, after losing key players to injury, after abandoning any pretense of having a real starting pitching rotation, this remains a team that can beat anyone.

So about today’s game:

We can dispense quickly with the Rays offense. In the bottom of the first, Kevin Kiermaier singled on Max Scherzer’s very first pitch. He motored all the way to third after Matt Duffy singled on the tenth pitch of a very major league at bat. Kiermaier could then score when Jake Bauers hit a ground ball; Jake’s hustle out of the box prevented Nats from turning a double play, but he was stranded there.

And that was it. Yeah, there were some walks (four total, three from Scherzer) and a few scattered singles. Scherzer didn’t pitch his typical game. Normally a high strikeout, fly ball guy, he only struck out four today, and induced eight ground-outs to three flies. One mark of a great pitcher, and Scherzer is a great pitcher, is having different ways to get outs, and he showed that today.

Nate Eovaldi was impressive. He was getting whiffs on fastballs and splitters. He was perfect through three innings.

He lost the strike zone a bit in the fourth. He hit Adam Eaton with a pitch and then went full count to Harper before walking him. Anthony Rendon made solid contact on a fly to right, but right at Mallex Smith, whose strong throw in convinced Eaton not to try to advance to third.

The Nats ran, or stood, into the second out in an odd play. With Harper on first and Eaton on second, Harper took off for second. Maybe it was supposed to be a double steal but Eaton missed the sign? At any rate, you can’t have two guys at second. Taking no chances of losing the out, Wilson Ramos ran the ball out into the field to tag Eaton.

The inning ended with a good play by Adeiny Hechevarria on a grounder up the middle.

Even after giving up the walks, Eovaldi was still working on a no hitter when he started the sixth. This raised all kinds of interesting questions about whether Cash would let him keep pitching. He was closing in on 100 pitches, and a quick check of pitcher splits tells you that Eovaldi’s success drops quickly once he faces a line-up for the third time. On the other hand, how do you pull a guy out of a no hitter?

A Bryce Harper double, one that was inches from a game-tying home run, eliminated that dilemma. Eovaldi was able to finish out the sixth with the shut-out in tact.

Fast forward to the ninth inning, with the Rays looking to protect the one run lead. Normally I imagine this would be a Johnny Venters moment; he would be perfect to face the several lefties coming up for Washington but also a good bet to handle righty Anthony Rendon.

But Venters is, sadly, on the DL. So Kevin Cash decided to bring in Jose Alvarado, the left-handed flame-thrower, to face Bryce Harper. Alvardo, however, walked Harper to put the tying run on base.

Next up was Rendon, followed by two left-handed batters. Would Cash leave Alvarado in to face Rendon? Pull him and bring in a righty, even though there was really no one you bring back for the lefties?

None of the above. Cash did this:

He brought in Chaz Roe to face Rendon.

Jose Alvardo moved to first base. Yes, you read that correctly. Jake Bauers handed over his first baseman’s glove and headed to left field, replacing Johnny Field.

My colleague Carl understands this all better than I do, you can read about it here.

If you are trying to picture Alvarado at first, see below.

I’m glad Jose was amused.

This could have gone wrong in so many ways.

But it didn’t. Chaz Roe struck out Rendon, so we will never have to wonder how Alvardo might have handled a double play ball, or a pick off throw, or anything else.

After that, Alvarado slid back onto the mound, and Bauers went back to first. Somehow in all this, Carlos Gomez ended up in right field and the Rays gave up the DH slot.

All that needed to happen, then, was for Alvardo to get those next two lefty batters out. But instead, but Soto and Murphy singled. They were not well struck balls, but nonetheless they fell in, and the bases were loaded.

At that point, Cash brought in Sergio Romo, appearing for what feels like the tenth game in a row.

Romo did manage to get those last two outs, the first on a fly to shallow right, not deep enough for Harper to risk tagging up. The second was a strike out of Michael Taylor, caught chasing a sweeping slider.

But that’s not all!

Do you remember when the Rays played at the Nationals park on June 6? And lost to the Nationals in an 11-2 blowout?

Do you remember that Michael Taylor stole third at some point late in the game? And Sergio Romo was unhappy because apparently the unwritten rules say that you take your foot off the gas pedal when your team is that far ahead?

Well, Sergio apparently remembers.

And apparently Romo didn’t think it was enough to strike Taylor out with bases loaded to end the game.

So after the last pitch Romo had a few words for him. Which led to the benches clearing. But most of the players clearly had no idea why. Most baseball “fights” involve a lot of milling about, but in this case these players really seem to have no idea what is going on.

Personally, I think unwritten rules that suggest your opponent should stop playing hard are stupid rules. I can’t help but like Romo’s passion, however. Also, if you are going to get “revenge” I’d say striking out the guy and then yelling at him seems more functional than hitting him with a pitch and putting him on first. (Of course, hitting Taylor might have been Romo’s first choice but with bases loaded and the game on the line it wasn’t an option).

So, there you have it. Just a quiet little afternoon pitchers duel.