For the first time since 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays finished the regular season with a 90-72 record. Tampa Bay pulled in front of the Toronto Blue Jays for good in a three-run fifth inning Sunday afternoon, then won 9-4.
Toronto scored the first run of the game in the third against Ryan Yarbrough. Kevin Pillar came up with a two-out single, then moved into second on a passed ball. Randall Grichuk followed with a double to left, putting Toronto up by a run. Yet Tampa Bay answered with a pair of runs in the bottom of the inning against Sam Gaviglio.
Jake Bauers led off the inning with a single to right, stole his way into second, and went to third on a wild pitch. With two outs and a runner at third, Tommy Pham walked and stole the teams third base of the game. But the responding throw by Reese McGwire ended up in centerfield, which allowed Bauers to cross the plate and Pham to move into third. Joey Wendle capped the rally with a base hit through the left side, putting Tampa Bay in front for the first time.
But, Toronto tied the game in the fifth inning against Yarbrough. With two outs, the southpaw allowed a bloop single to center to Richard Urena before Pillar doubled over the head of Austin Meadows in right, plating a run. After a six-pitch walk to Randal Grichuk, Yarbrough coaxed a fly ball out in foul territory to prevent any further damage, keeping the game even.
Tied at two entering the home sixth, Bauers collected his second hit of the day — bunting against the shift for a hit to start a go-ahead rally. Nick Ciuffo followed with a sacrifice bunt, moving Bauers up to second. One pitch later Smith singled to right-center, scoring Bauers and putting the Rays ahead by a run.
Not content with just 39 steals on the season, Smith swiped second — his second of the game and 40th of the season. Smith’s 40 steals are the most for a Ray since Carl Crawford’s 47 and B.J. Upton’s 42 in 2010.
Pham — who had reached base in 33 consecutive games with his third-inning walk — tripled to left-center, stretching the lead to two runs before Wendle hit a sac fly to center, capping the three-run rally.
Still, the Blue Jays answered in the seventh inning against reliever Hunter Wood, the third Rays pitcher of the day. Wood walked Teoscar Hernandez, who went to third on a single to right by Rowdy Tellez. Hernandez ultimately came home on an RBI groundout by Aledmys Diaz to make it a two-run game.
However, the Rays tacked on three runs in the seventh on Brandon Lowe’s sac fly and Bauers’ two-run double, which put the Rays up by five. Both teams added a run on double-play groundouts the following inning.
All told, Tampa Bay collected 10 hits with three each from Bauers and Pham. Meanwhile, Austin Pruitt fired off 3-1/3 innings of one-run ball.
Wendle, who became the first Tampa Bay rookie hitter to hit .300 in a given season (and the first .300 hitter for Tampa Bay since Casey Kotchman in 2011), was lifted in the eighth inning to a standing ovation. He later came out for a curtain call.
At the end of the day, Tampa Bay’s 90 wins feels important. True, there really is not much of a difference between 90 wins and 89 wins, especially without the benefit of a postseason berth. Yet after a 1-8 and 4-13 start to the season, 90 wins feels like a revelation. Pair that with the fact that the Rays were in the running for a Wildcard spot with six games left to play, in the last week of the season. Fans and players alike caught a whiff of something they hadn’t in five long years. That whiff makes the team a much more formidable presence going into the 2019 season.
Rays skipper Kevin Cash likened it to laying the groundwork in his postgame presser, saying:
We should be very proud of the way we played this year. The things we accomplished. The groundwork we laid. But we’re not satisfied. … We need to go into this offseason, enjoy ourselves, take a month, then get back after it.
Jake Bauers responded in kind:
I’m excited to be a part of this whole organization. This is a great group of coaches. We have a great manager and a great group of 40 guys. Any time you’re generally excited to go to work and you’re excited about being able to hang out with your boys, your buddies, just go have fun and have baseball be enjoyable with guys you actually like, it’s a huge thing. We’re looking forward to next year.
So are we, Jake.