ST. PETERSBURG -- So much has gone right for the Rays this season, and they’ve played so well in the early going, that it’s difficult to harp on Thursday’s extra-inning loss to the Orioles.
This team won’t be perfect, and they certainly weren’t in their 6-5 loss in 11 innings at Tropicana Field, dropping their first extra-inning game of the season.
They left several scoring opportunities on the basepaths, including a chance to walk-off in the bottom of the ninth after Avisail Garcia hit a mammoth game-tying homer.
Instead, former Tampa Bay farmhand Joey Rickard capped a four-hit day with an RBI double just inside the left-field line to score Chris Davis off Rays reliever Diego Castillo with the winning run in the 11th.
With the loss, the Rays fell to 14-5. They maintained a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL East over the Yankees.
The fact that the Rays needed extra innings — and needed to use six pitchers — puts the staff in a predicament heading into Friday’s series opener against Boston. The Rays had planned on using an opener for the third straight game.
The game ended 32 minutes before midnight with Garcia striking out.
“Good to see the guys come back the way they did," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Pretty exciting with Avisail, just came up a little bit short at the end. Impressed with the way the guys continued to battle and find a way to get back into that ballgame.”
The Rays saw a handful of fly balls harmlessly fall into gloves along the Tropicana Field outfield warning track against the Orioles Thursday night until Garcia hit one that left no doubt.
With the Rays two outs away from a loss, Garcia blasted a Mychal Givens full-count fastball an estimated 447 feet onto the D-ring catwalk above the Trop's center-field concourse, tying the game in the ninth inning and sending the game into extras.
“You hit the ball so good you don’t feel anything,” Garcia said. "But it’s good to hit a home run, especially in that situation. But we lost the game. So tomorrow we have another game. So let’s see what happens tomorrow.
Tommy Pham, who had four hits including his third homer of the season, singled and went to second on a wild pitch, but was hung up between second and third, erasing the potential winning run.
“Tommy does a lot of things at the plate, in the outfield that can help us,” Cash said. “That was an aggressive play on his end, understand the thought process. They made a nice play recognizing it.”
Said Pham: “You have a guy (in Givens) who is a great sinkerballer, plus sinker, plus slider, and with me getting to third he would be less likely to bury those pitches. So if I could get to third there it actually makes (Ji-Man) Choi’s job a little easier because he would be more likely to leave a ball up. That was going through my mind.”
Garcia’s blast marked the fifth time in Tropicana Field history that a fair ball has hit a catwalk and not come down. It’s the second fair ball to remain on the D-ring, the lowest of the stadium’s four catwalks that hangs 59 feet above the playing surface in center field.
The Rays had their opportunities to tie the game before Garcia's blast. Trailing 3-1, they stranded two runners in scoring position in the fifth and left the tying run on third in the eighth after Mike Zunino's opposite-field two-run double cut the lead to 5-4.
Right-hander Hunter Wood threw two scoreless inning in his first opener assignment of the season. Lefty Jalen Beeks didn't fare as well, allowed three runs over three innings, including a solo homer to light-hitting Orioles catcher Pedro Severino. Adam Kolarek and Emilio Pagan each allowed a run.
The Rays will depend on the opener for the third straight night in Friday’s opener against Boston, something that Cash said had been the plan all along once Blake Snell landed on the IL and left Friday’s spot open. Ryne Stanek will open for the second time in three nights, with lefty Ryan Yarbrough likely following him as the bulk reliever.
The Rays used the opener strategy three consecutive days five times last season, including four times last September, so it’s nothing new.
The Rays have played only one team with a winning record among their first six opponents, and their last 15 games have come against teams currently holding records below .500.
The Rays are coming off a pair of series wins against rebuilding AL East opponents Toronto and Baltimore. They have yet to play the Red Sox or Yankees, and both division heavyweights have struggled in their own way, but that changes Friday when Tampa Bay opens a three-game home series against the Red Sox, opening a span of six games against Boston in their next nine contests.
The Red Sox, a team that opened last season 17-2, entered Thursday sitting in the AL East cellar at 6-13. Their starters' ERA of 6.70 is the worst in baseball, and their staff ERA of 6.01 ranks 29th of MLB's 30 teams.
Still, the Rays don't need to be told that these games against the Red Sox are important. They entered Thursday holding an 8 1/2-game lead over Boston in the division, and a strong showing over the next nine games games can bury the Red Sox even more, just like Boston did to the Rays in early head-to-head contests during their torrid start last season.
The Rays will face a similar situation next month against the Yankees, facing New York six times in an eight-game span through mid-May.
No matter how much the two teams have struggled -- and how well Tampa Bay has played -- the Rays' path to the division hinges on beating them. The Rays has losing records against the Red Sox (8-11) and Yankees (9-10) last season.
“I’m very confident we certainly will,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “You can throw the record out the window. They’re really good teams. But I like the way, some of the momentum we’ve created going into those series. You’ve got to be playing your best baseball more times than not to have successful games, wins, win series against teams like that, and we’re going to need every bit of it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of pitchers the Rays used in Thursday’s game
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.