ST. PETERSBURG — After the Rays dispatched the Texas Rangers 5-3 on Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, it seemed like a perfect time to briefly exhale.
As the Rays (82-64) continue their playoff push, the final seven regular-season home games will provide a worthy challenge.
The Astros (96-51), who have the American League’s best record, begin a three-game series Monday night at the Trop. Starting Thursday, it’s four games against the Blue Jays (83-64), who lead the Rays by a half-game for the AL’s top wild-card spot.
“This is something I’ve never experienced before and it’s just an amazing feeling to be on the field,” Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt said. “Every pitch, every game, every battle matters. There are a lot of emotions, but we also have to be humble and be prepared for any situation.”
“We saw the schedule early on and we knew what September looked like,” Rays left-hander Jeffrey Springs said. “You know it’s going to be good baseball. It’s what you want to play for in September. You want to play the best. The Astros are good every year. Toronto is doing it. It should be pretty fun.”
Springs (9-4) had his own share of fun Sunday. He was bidding to become the Rays’ first traditional starter to have four consecutive scoreless outings. Although that didn’t happen, Springs was still effective (5 2/3 innings, six hits, two earned runs, zero walks, six strikeouts).
Springs was frustrated that he couldn’t finish the sixth inning, getting lifted after surrendering a two-out single, then hitting a batter. But he was also confident that the lights-out bullpen would preserve the advantage.
And it did.
Rays relievers have allowed just one run in their last 20 innings. Against the Rangers, the quartet of Javy Guerra, Brooks Raley, Colin Poche and Pete Fairbanks retired the last 10 Texas batters, seven by strikeout. Fairbanks, who earned his eighth save, has 19 consecutive scoreless appearances.
“It’s what we’ve seen all year from the bullpen,” Springs said. “Every guy is stepping up. It doesn’t matter who it is and whatever the situation is. Every guy we run out there, there’s a lot of trust. They believe they’re going to get it done and they believe they’re going to dominate.”
That’s especially true for Fairbanks, who has allowed just two hits over his last 12 appearances. He hasn’t permitted an extra-base hit since July 17.
“Pete’s stuff is probably the best it has ever been, the velocity, the execution, the breaking ball,” Springs said. “He’s the perfect guy for the ninth inning with his mentality and approach. He’s a fiery guy.”
Within a three-pitch span off Rangers starter Glenn Otto (6-9) in the second inning, the Rays had a 2-1 lead with back-to-back home runs from Christian Bethancourt and Jose Siri. In the third, it was increased to a three-run advantage on an RBI double by Jonathan Aranda and a run-scoring single by Manuel Margot.
When the Rangers cut it to 4-3, the Rays scored an insurance run in the sixth. With two outs, Bethancourt singled and Siri walked. Wander Franco, pinch-hitting for Ji-Man Choi, reached after bouncing a slow roller along the first-base line, which couldn’t be retrieved by diving reliever Brock Burke. Taylor Walls then drew a bases-loaded walk.
That was that. The Rays had the momentum to secure a series win against the struggling Rangers. Now the competition hits a higher level.
“There’s no doubt it will be challenging,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We know the Astros are a talented team that can really do special things offensively. We haven’t seen them at all this year, other than on the highlights.”
The Rays’ winning recipe against the Rangers was much more subtle. The bottom of the lineup came up big. The mix-and-match bullpen was on point as usual. Maybe it wasn’t worthy of a highlight reel. But once again, it was enough.
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