ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays, as the rain pounded down on Tropicana Field on Wednesday afternoon, found a few shafts of sunlight, finally.
After losing seven of their past eight to fall behind in the AL wild-card race, including two straight to the Red Sox, who had pulled even in the standings, score one for the home team. Tampa Bay actually won a one-run game, 3-2 over Boston and former Rays ace David Price, and left for Toronto in a better frame of mind.
“Some breathing room today,” Joey Wendle said.
He is finding some, too.
And that could be the best news the Rays could have right about now as they cling to postseason dreams.
No, shortstop/second baseman Wendle wasn’t the biggest headline-maker Wednesday. Starter Charlie Morton pitched seven super-strong innings of two-run ball. The Rays bullpen actually threw well. And there was the hubbub over manager Kevin Cash’s pitching-lineup switching late in the game, which caused a delay worthy of a 16th Street substation outage. A rare Rays big house, 24,1661, squirmed in the seats.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora and his team decided to play under protest. Hey, you won the World Series last year, shut your faces and get on the plane, you’ve got the Yankees tonight.
Wendle went 2-for-3, with a run-scoring single off Price that tied the score at 2 in the fifth. He played shortstop, he moved to second, he looked like Joey Wendle again.
And if he keeps it up …
“It would be huge,” Cash said.
This season has been a battle for Wendle, one of the majors’ top rookies last season, with the best WAR (4.3) among freshmen. He was a demon at the plate, in the field and on the base paths. He hustled at everything. He made you smile over the surprising 90-win Rays season. Picked up off the scrap heap after Oakland designated him for assignment, he became a rising star.
Then came this season: a hamstring twang kept him out early, immediately followed by a hit-by-pitch fractured right wrist in late April that cost him 45 games. His season was off track from the start. When he came back in mid June, he began 1-for-24 in his first eight games.
But Wendle is hitting .277 in his past 27 games. He has gone 262 at-bats without a homer and has only nine RBIs, but he is coming around, maybe when the Rays need him most.
“It’s been a frustrating season for sure, especially the last week or two, when you see the team not playing to its potential,” Wendle said. “Not being able to do much when I was out was tough.”
“You feel for Joey,” Cash said. “You look at what (Kevin Kiermaier) did last year, his struggles with the injuries. There are some similarities. There’s no timing. Joey is gaining his timing on the fly. I know he’s over the 100 at-bat mark, and we’re starting to see those grind-it-out at-bats from him and those hard line drives the other way.”
Three runs does not an offensive explosion make. The Rays lineup, outside of some fantasy baseball from mighty Travis d’Arnaud, has been nothing special. It’s like everyone is 1-for-their-last-10.
But maybe, just maybe, here comes Wendle, who hit .300 last season with seven homers and 61 RBIs. He mattered a lot of nights in 2018.
As for 2019 …
“You have to remember there are two months left,” he said. “My season, as it is, isn’t even halfway over. There’s time.”
That’s how lefty Wendle wound up facing lefty Price on Wednesday, rather than Cash going with righty-hitting Willy Adames.
“They keep putting me in the lineup.” Wendle said. “They keep showing their confidence in me, and that means a lot.”
Cash said, “We believe in all our guys, but how can you not believe in Joey? He’s just going to will his way to have success.”
Wednesday was another small step.
“I was able to show what I could do last year, so obviously you want to play as best as you can again this year,” Wendle said. “It was a tough start. Now I’m fully healthy and ready.”
And that can’t hurt.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.