After a 6-2 road trip, culminating in the American League East title, the Tampa Bay Rays return home for the final series of the 2020 regular season. Enter the Philadelphia Phillies — who are coming off a series loss to the Nationals — for a three-game set starting Friday.
The Rays enter play 17 games over .500 and still in the hunt for the top seed in the American League — they are two games ahead of the Twins and 2-1/2 games in front of Oakland. If the postseason were to begin today, Tampa Bay would face Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rays continue to strike out at an alarming clip — a problem that has been exacerbated by the absences of Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Díaz, and Austin Meadows. Yet, they find ways to win ball games. Even so, the Rays still need to figure out ways to put the ball in play in the big moments, especially with runners in scoring position. Tampa Bay snapped an 0-for-27 wRISP skid in the series finale against the Mets. As Neil Solondz (Rays Radio) writes, “Putting the ball in play can score runs. Brandon Lowe drove home two key runs on outs on the last road trip. Tsutsugo had an important sac fly. Especially since the Rays have become adept at taking the extra base by using their speed and athleticism, reducing the strikeout in RBI chances will go a long way toward a successful playoff run.”
As for the Phillies, they are in the midst of their own contentious playoff race in the National League. Even though Philadelphia enters the series one game under .500, they are a half game behind the Giants for the final spot in the National League, and a game behind the Marlins for second place in the NL East. They have outperformed the Rays in almost every offensive metric over the last 14 days, yet, in spite of that, Philadephia’s pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. They maintain a 5.18 ERA/4.50 FIP overall, and a 5.08 ERA/4.02 FIP over the last 14 days. Those bloated numbers come courtesy of the Phillies’ bullpen, which sports an overall 7.17 ERA/5.67 FIP (7.01 ERA/4.97 FIP over the last 14 days). While the Rays may have their hands full with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, they should get a chance against Philadelphia’s relief corps.
The Rays went 0-3 against the Phillies the last time these two paired off in 2018 and were outscored 21-9.
Over the next three days, Charlie Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA), Ryan Yarbrough (1-4, 3.78 ERA), and Josh Fleming (4-0, 3.42 ERA) will get one last regular-season tuneup. They’ll be opposed by Vince Velasquez (1-1, 5.46 ERA), Zack Wheeler (4-1, 2.67 ERA), and Aaron Nola (5-4, 3.06 ERA).
Charlie Morton got off to an inauspicious start Saturday — getting into a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first inning — yet he limited the damage and battled his way to a win over Baltimore, allowing one run on five hits and two walks and two hit batters while striking out six across five innings of work on 94 pitches (61% strike rate, 26% SwStr%). For only the second time since returning from the Injured List on September 2, Morton was able to make it through five innings, surrendering a lone tally to pick up his first win since August 4. Morton’s final pitch count of 94 bodes well for his ability to throw without limitations in the postseason. Between a shoulder injury that cost him nearly three weeks and an uncharacteristic 4.64 ERA (albeit reduced from 5.13), the 2020 campaign has been somewhat disappointing for the right-hander, he could provide a significant boost to the Rays’ rotation if he’s able to peak heading into the postseason.
He settled in and did a really nice job of competing, making pitches, and getting a feel for everything that he had. But most of all encouraged that we got him to that 95-pitch mark and throughout that the velocity stayed consistent.— Kevin Cash
Vince Velasquez struck out six and gave up one run on two hits and three walks over six innings against the Blue Jays on Saturday. The right-hander surrendered a fifth-inning solo homer to Travis Shaw but otherwise kept Toronto off the board. Velasquez has a 5.46 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and 2.67 K/BB over 29-2/3 innings. He is primarily a four-pitch pitcher who boasts a whiffy 94 mph four-seam fastball with some added backspin, while also mixing in an 83 mph curveball with sharp downward bite and 12-6 movement, an 88 mph changeup with natural sink to it, and a hard 87 mph slider with short glove-side cut. Velasquez is 0-0 with a 1.45 ERA in one career start against the Rays.
Ryan Yarbrough allowed two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out eight over seven innings on Sunday against the Orioles. Yarbrough gave up two runs in the first inning, yet he settled in and finished his outing with six scoreless frames. Unfortunately, the two runs proved to be the difference in the game as the Orioles’ pitching staff put forth a dominant showing. The left-hander now maintains a 3.78 ERA and 3.33 K/BB over 52-1/3 innings.
Zack Wheeler gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits and three walks while striking out seven across 5-2/3 innings Monday against the Nationals. Wheeler got into early trouble, allowing two runs in the first inning followed by one in the sixth. He didn’t receive much run support, which resulted in the right-hander’s first loss of the 2020 season. Wheeler owns a 2.67 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with a 3.75 K/BB across 64 innings. He relies primarily on a 97 mph four-seam fastball, while also mixing in a 97 mph worm-killer sinker with natural sinking action, a hard 90 mph slider, a whiffy 80 mph curveball with sharp downward bite, and a hard 90 mph changeup with a ton of backspin. Key Matchups: Manuel Margot (2-6), Brett Phillips (1-2)
Josh Fleming, who was slated to pitch the bulk of the innings on Tuesday, entered the game after Ryan Thompson and got the final out of the third inning. He also allowed just a grounder in the fourth.
Even so, former Ray Guillermo Heredia battled back from an 0-2 count to earn a free pass, while Ramos hit a single to right on the next pitch, putting two on and moving a runner into scoring position. After Nimmo was hit by a pitch, consequently loading the bases, Jeff McNeil hit an infield RBI single that Willy Adames made a diving stop on, scoring Heredia and bringing the Mets within one. But, J.D. Davis lined to right on the very next pitch, keeping the Rays in front.
Fleming came out in the sixth and got the first two batters before Diego Castillo took over with Alonso, whom he quickly put away, stepping into the box.
After a rough start patch in September, Fleming has allowed just one run over 6-2/3 frames encompassing his last two trips to the mound.
Aaron Nola gave up five runs (three earned) on six hits and two walks over six innings on Thursday against Washington. He struck out six. It was Nola’s fourth quality start in his last six outings, a stretch during which he’s posted a 3.03 ERA and 3.85 K/BB across 38-2/3 innings. Nola relies primarily on an 85 mph changeup that dives down out of the zone, a 79 mph curveball with sweeping glove-side movement, a whiffy 93 mph four-seam fastball with obvious tail and some natural sinking action, and a groundball inducing 92 mph sinker with natural sinking action. Key Matchup: Hunter Renfroe (3-7, 2 2B)
— Hunter Renfroe will play first base for the time in a starting role during the series. Renfroe finished the game there on Wednesday. Rays manager Kevin Cash said part of that is not knowing how ready Yandy Díaz will be for the postseason.
— The above being said, both Díaz and Ji-Man Choi have made real progress in recovering from their injuries. They took live batting practice the last two days, facing José Alvarado Thursday and Trevor Richards and Shane McClanahan Friday. They also took grounders and ran the bases in addition to taking another round of batting practice. Both infielders could both be ready for the postseason.
— Alvarado is slated to throw another simulated inning against Díaz and Choi on Saturday.