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ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays saw the weekend series with the Red Sox as one of opportunity.
To prove they very much were legitimate contenders to win the American League East title they covet. And, thanks to the rare chance to be in the ESPN Sunday night spotlight, to show they world how they are doing it.
And they did just that, with a tense 3-2 win Sunday that completed a three-game sweep and extended their division lead to 1½ games.
“I think it kind of speaks for itself,’’ second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “I think we came out, we played our baseball, in all honesty. It’s kind of what we expect out of ourselves. We know that we’re not going to win every single game, but if we can play like we did these past few days, we’ll be in good shape.’’
Sunday was a good tutorial in how the Rays, who improved to 64-42 and a season-high 22 games over .500, do it. And how to handle the 63-44 Red Sox, who lost their season-high fourth straight and fifth out of six games.
The Rays got a strong six-inning start from rookie Shane McClanahan and nine high-leverage outs from three relievers who have been among the recent additions to the bullpen — Drew Rasmussen, Ryan Sherriff and Matt Wisler, who got the final out with two on for his first save as a Ray.
They produced just enough runs as the product of some quality at-bats. Lowe hit a two-run homer (his team-high 23rd) in the third inning to end starter Nick Pivetta’s mastery of them, and red-hot rookie Wander Franco and Manuel Margot combined for the decisive run in the fifth.
They made their usual assortment of dazzling defensive plays, highlighted by Kevin Kiermaier and Margot running down balls in the outfield before a crowd of 17,816.
“It was a great team game,’’ McClanahan said. “We’re really excited about the series sweep and the way everyone’s been playing. I think it was awesome energy tonight. …
“We knew how big it was. And we wanted it bad. And we made a lot of great plays.’’
The Rays have been on the national stage plenty, playing 26 postseason games in 2019-20, including six in last year’s World Series. But for those tuning in for the team’s first ESPN Sunday night appearance — somehow — since 2014, and from Tropicana Field since 2011, the Rays made a good impression.
And they made some introductions, showcasing two of their young players who will play key roles down the stretch.
McClanahan, the 24-year-old from USF, looks to be their top starter now, and he pitched like it Sunday, logging five straight strikeouts over the first and second innings, allowing just a Hunter Renfroe solo homer, walking two and striking out seven.
“He seemed like he enjoyed it,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “He had a really good fastball, threw good breaking balls. Every pitch was a good one. … Just an outstanding performance by him. And when guys got on base, he seemed to make big, big pitches.’’
Franco, the 20-year-old shortstop, had his third straight two-hit game, singling to open the fifth, moving up on a wild pitch and racing home on Margot’s single.
“Two big at-bats,’’ Cash said. “Starting to see some things (with) Wander that’s made him special. Spoiling pitches and extending at-bats, that’s what’s made him really, really good at league-age 20, and now we’re seeing that in the big leagues.’’
Lowe also has been impressed: “Maybe they were right with that whole No. 1 prospect kind of thing, huh?’’
The whole weekend turned out to be a pretty good show.
“I think,’' Lowe said, “we’re in a really good spot.’'
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