Thanks to a defeat of arguably the best pitcher in baseball, the Rays magic number for the American League East is down to one with nearly a week of baseball to go.
The Rays took on the other team from New York on Monday night, tussling with Jacob deGrom and the Mets in a game in which Rays manager Kevin Cash gave a potential preview of what a back-end of the rotation playoff game could look like for the Rays come October.
The Rays started with Peter Fairbanks, who lowered his ERA to 2.55 with an inning and two-thirds of shutout baseball. It was Fairbanks second “open” and given how well he pairs as a stark difference from Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming, it may not be his last.
On the other side of the diamond, the Rays drew the aforementioned deGrom who was in elite form, despite having had to be pulled early from his last start. The Rays went down 1-2-3 in the first inning on ten pitches, with the two-time reigning NL Cy Young winner hitting triple digits on all three of his first inning strikeouts. In the words of Mets fan, Larry David, “pretty, pretttty, prrretttyyyy good.”
Those strikeouts would go on to be a theme for the night for Tampa, but when the put the ball in play, it turned out to be just enough.
The first run of the game came from the Rays in the second inning, as Nate Lowe drew a leadoff walk, and Joey Wendle (who just seemed like the Rays who would hit deGrom best) jumped all over a first-pitch fastball, poking a double into the left-center gap to put runners on second and third with no one out. Manuel Margot was able to get the job done, collecting an RBI on a sac fly to center field to give the Rays the 1-0 lead.
Fairbanks handed things over to Ryan Thompson with two outs in the second, just in time to handle the bottom half of the Mets lineup, where they had stashed their toughest righties. Thompson proceeded to collect three outs and fill the role of “second opener” to perfection, with Cash finding the perfect chess move for the game of checkers the Mets were playing.
The Rays second run came in the top of the fourth, when Nate Lowe hit an absolute laser to dead center off deGrom, one of the best pieces of hitting of his impressive young career.
Don’t give this man anything below the belt. (For the record, I LOVE Choi, but Lowe is proving he deserves his spot on this team right now.)
After Fairbanks and Thompson combined for eight outs, Josh Fleming (aka Flemdog Millionaire) came in for the bulk role. It was a slighter bulk today, with Fleming tallying three innings, over which he gave up the lone Mets run of the day.
The run came in the bottom of the fifth and had Rays fans white-knuckling their remotes (or iPhones?) briefly. Fleming got two quick outs to start the fifth, but a two-out walk to Guillermo Heredia was followed by a single from old friend Wilson Ramos and then a Brandon Nimmo hit by pitch. Jeff McNeil slammed one up the middle, and although Willy Adames couldn’t quite come up with the ball clean enough to get the final out, he saved a run and kept the Rays lead at 2-1. Fleming then got J.D. Davis to pull a long hard liner to right field, but our very own Brett Phillips made the play to hold on to the lead for the Rays.
From there, it was basically exactly how Cash drew it up on his Vision Board: Castillo for the righty section of the Mets lineup in the seventh; Sheriff gets the lefties in the eighth; and finally, the Rays most dominant bullpen arm, Nick Anderson, closes out the ninth without a scratch.
Six pitchers; four hits allowed. It was a master class by Cash and co., and a perfect preview of how the Rays, even towards the back-end of their rotation are truly run prevention mavens. It’s part of why the 13-5 record the 2020 Rays now own in one-run games feels more sustainable than it might for other teams, and it’s part of why Rays fans should be excited for October—or at least as excited as it’s possible to be for the weird-ass, 16-team, three-game-first-round-series, no-days-off playoffs to come.