Hope you had “Wild Wacky Walkoff” on your BINGO card, because it sure was an interesting one in the series decider (worth a hypothetical “2.7” wins in this 60-game season, of course) in St. Petersburg on Sunday.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays met in the final game of their 2020 MLB season-opening series, with 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell facing off with 25-year-old Thomas Hatch, making his MLB debut for Toronto.
Given that Hatch had never pitched a single inning above Double-A before Sunday’s game, DRB’s Mr. Lizzie knew instantly the Rays wouldn’t get a single hit off him. And she was right!
The 6-1 righty did well in his brief debut, tossing two and a third hitless innings, actually recording more outs than Snell, who is still working his way up to full-time and only threw 48 pitches over two scoreless innings.
Snell’s rust definitely showed, with plenty of fastballs riding up and away in the zone, but he also struck out five over the two frames, and has plenty of time/leeway to work himself in to shape this season.
The Rays moved on to Trevor Richards, whose performance at “Summer Camp” increased many Rays’ fans ideas for what is possible from the 27-year-old vet in 2020. Richards and his changeup started off strong, getting Vladito on a nasty changeup out of the zone, and allowing only two hits in his first three frames.
On the Rays’ side of things, the only at bat of note over the first four frames came from Ji-Man Choi who debuted his switch-hitting abilities.
#Rays Choi said Cash approached him during summer camp about possibly switch hitting. He said he felt good today and decided to try it. Is he a switch hitter now?— Juan Toribio (@juanctoribio) July 26, 2020
As one would have to imagine, Choi looked pretty lost and struck out on four pitches. (Foreshadowing: be a warning or indication of a future event).
Things turned in the sixth for Richards, however, as Randal Grichuk started the inning with what would become a theme for Toronto this frame: a hit. In fact, the Jays rattled six straight of those suckers to start the framing, chasing Richards and giving themselves a 4-0 lead before Andrew Kittredge induced a double play to end the inning on what was, ironically, one of the hardest hit balls of the inning (106.6 mph, per Statcast, with only one other batted ball that inning topping 100 mph).
In the bottom half of the sixth, the Rays got what looked for a while to be the lone highlight of the game, when Choi came up to bat against a lefty once again, and this time, well, he didn’t look so lost (you big dumb idiot, Two Paragraphs Ago Jim):
JI-MAN! Batting right-handed, Choi hits a solo home run off of Kay to put the Rays on the board! pic.twitter.com/c5pQJxAxvh— DRaysBay (@draysbay) July 26, 2020
That was no cheapie either. With a 109.9 mph exit velocity, the ball traveled well into the stands in the deepest part of the ballpark, making its way 429 feet in total. I think it’s fair to say the Rays have the most beloved player in baseball right now. (At least among the Ones Who Know.)
Ji-Man Choi could levitate around the bases like Magneto and I'd be like "Sure I don't see why he wouldn't be able to do that."— Michael Baumann (@MichaelBaumann) July 26, 2020
When Brandon Lowe collected a ground-rule double (that probably should’ve been caught) a batter later, it smelled like something was cooking for the Rays, but they didn’t get any more runs until they clawed one back in the seventh, with Margot making up a bit for a brief mistake in the outfield earlier by hitting a leadoff double and coming around to score.
It seemed like the Rays were dead and buried after that, though. They did not even getting another base runner until there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Joey Wendle pulled a ball down the line for a double.
Hope? I don’t know, they were still down two against one of the better closers in baseball who only needed one out to go, with no crowd cheering them on? They seemed toast.
But what was actually toast was Ken Giles’ control, as he walked the next two batters and fell behind Choi 3-1 before allowing Brian Moran to finish the walk off to Choi, bringing in the third Rays run, to cut the lead to 4-3.
The next batter seemed for a moment to be a Cash Considerations consideration, as left-handed hitting Brandon Lowe was left in to face Moran, but thanks to a shift in the defense, a missed dive from hefty first baseman Vlad Guerrero, Jr. and a headfirst slide from Lowe to beat the throw from shallow right, the Rays were able to tie up the game and force extra innings.
Now, about that new rule: I may or may not have thought I missed a leadoff double from the Jays somehow, but of course, this was the first regular season games for the Rays under the new rules, and this new extra inning shindig almost came back to bite them.
Sanitago Espinal started the inning on second, and with one down, he took off for third. He was originally called out, only to have the play overturned when it was revealed, in slow motion, that his swim move defeated Wendle’s tag. Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. proceeded to hit a sac fly, and it looked like all Rays fans would be cursing the new extra innings rule.
Stupid rule— Shane McClanahan (@Sugar_ShaneM) July 26, 2020
In the bottom half of the tenth, however, the Rays got a player on their own on second (Kevan Smith—not the mooooost likely to steal third...), and who’s to say whether or not that provided distraction, but Shun Yamaguchi proceeded to walk Jose Martinez and then fall behind in the count to Kevin Kiermaier. Yamaguchi then hung one out of the middle, which KK pulled into the wide open space in right—against the outfield shift the Jays had in place.
Jose Martinez came rumbling all the way around from first beating what was a poor throw and giving the Rays the walkoff victory. It was the first such win for the Rays in the 2020 season, as well as under the new extra inning rules... which of course were now seen in a different light by many of us.