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Tampa Bay Rays blank Yankees, tighten hold on AL wild-card spot

Rays 4, Yankees 0: Charlie Morton got the Rays off to a great start with 5⅔ hitless innings and the offense got two early runs.
 
Tampa Bay Rays players celebrate on the field as they beat the New York Yankees 4-0 at Tropicana Field September 25, 2019 in St. Petersburg, FL.
Tampa Bay Rays players celebrate on the field as they beat the New York Yankees 4-0 at Tropicana Field September 25, 2019 in St. Petersburg, FL. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 26, 2019|Updated Sept. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are talking quietly but confidently that if they can play their way into the postseason they feel they have a chance to go pretty deep.

Wednesday, one of their few guys who has been there and won that, Charlie Morton helped them take another big step toward the playoffs with a dominating six-inning start in a 4-0 win over the Yankees.

The win improved the Rays to 95-64 and guaranteed that when they open the final series of the regular season on Friday in Toronto after Thursday off, they can have no worse than a one-game lead for the second spot over the Indians, who fell 1½ back with an 8-3 loss Wednesday to the White Sox, and play them again Thursday.

Also that the Rays will be no more than a game behind the wild-card leading A’s, who hung on to their half-game lead Wednesday by rallying in the ninth for a 3-2 win over the Angels, and open a four-game series at Seattle on Thursday.

"The goal now is to get in,’’ said infielder Joey Wendle, whose leadoff homer gave the Rays a 1-0 lead. "And once we get in, I like our chances against anybody.

"I don’t think anybody particularly wants to be playing us right now. This team is built to play in a series like that, so we’ll see if we get the opportunity to do that.’’

Morton, who got the final out of the 2017 World Series for the Astros, played a huge role in Wednesday’s win, holding the Yankees hitless for 5⅔ innings, with only one ball hit to the outfield, before giving up a single to DJ LeMahieu.

Morton ended up working six shutout innings, allowing the one hit and three walks, striking out nine in his career-high 33rd start and pushing his innings total to 194⅔.

"Unbelievable,’’ manager Kevin Cash. "Amazing. I’m speechless, just with the performance when we needed him most. We’ve been saying that now for a month or six weeks: Every time he takes the ball, we really need him to step up. He certainly did (Wednesday) and quieted arguably the best lineup in baseball. Just an outstanding performance.’’

Morton’s work, plus that of relievers Diego Castillo, Oliver Drake, Nick Anderson (who got the biggest out, striking out Aaron Judge with two on in the eighth) and Andrew Kittredge, allowed the Rays to limit the Bronx Bombers to a season-low one hit and shut them out for just the second time.

"The past 24-30 hours that we have had here, it’s been a demonstration,'' Morton said. "Their guys threw the ball tremendous (Tuesday), too. I thought (Yankees bulk inning reliever) J.A. Happ threw really well tonight and there was some good pitching all around. Our guys these past few games, and all year, too, to hold those guys over there to one run. That’s awesome.''

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Or, as Wendle put it:

"I know today wasn’t a no-hitter or perfect game, but I would be hard-pressed to think of a better pitched game than tonight from start to finish. One of the more impressive things being at second, you get to see a lot of the movement on the pitches and all the locations, and it didn’t seem like there was a spot missed all night by our pitchers. Just an incredible job by them and it’s what they’ve been doing all year.”

Though Morton carried the no-hitter into the sixth, he had no illusions of completing it because of his pitch count, as he finished with 100 for the six innings.

"I knew that I had 70-plus pitches somewhere probably in the fourth or fifth,'' he said. "I would love to throw a no-hitter, but I’m pretty sure Cash is not going to leave me out there to throw 140 pitches no matter how well I’m throwing.''

Before the game, Cash was talking, hoping, wishing aloud that it would be nice if the Rays could get some runs early to give Morton something to work with.

Wendle took care of that, hitting the third pitch from Yankees opener Jonathan Loaisiga over the centerfield fence.

"Joey brings a lot of energy,'' Cash said. "He can hit home runs to centerfield; we don’t see them very often. There were a lot of jokes going on in the dugout. He considers himself one of the bash brothers, him and Austin Meadows. He’s got three (homers) and Meadows has 32, so that’s pretty entertaining.''

Singles by Meadows, Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe turned it into a 2-0 lead.

As tight as the Rays games have been lately that seemed like a cushion.

“Two-nothing is not especially a lot against that team but we haven’t been in that situation very often for whatever reason lately,’’ Cash said.

After some wasted opportunities and another couple outs on the bases, the Rays built the lead to 4-0, with an RBI double by Matt Duffy in the sixth and Avisail Garcia’s 20th homer of the season in the eighth, all before a spirited announced crowd of 20,390.

The only down side was the loss of Choi, who fouled a ball off his left (back) foot and had to leave the game. Cash said X-rays were negative but they expected Choi to be “pretty sore.'' The potential return of Yandy Diaz, who has been out since late July with a left foot fracture, could become more relevant.

As the Rays were set to jet off to Toronto after the game there was considerable uncertainty.

Not the least of which was knowing how long they’d be gone and if they’d be back to play another game under the Trop’s tilted roof.

Being in the middle of a three-team race for the two AL wild-card spots that going into Wednesday’s game saw only one game separating the three teams can do that.

“We could be going to a lot of places,’’ Duffy said. “We could have to come back here. We could have to go to Oakland. We might have to go to Oakland and Cleveland, and then to New York and back here.’’

Even with the regular season ending Sunday, there indeed are multiple scenarios the Rays are facing, from their season ending frustratingly in Toronto to flying back to host the Oct. 2 AL wild-card game.

In the middle is the potential, and major headache for travel and logistics director Chris Westmoreland, of a three-way tie, which creates the possibility of the Rays playing in Toronto Sunday, Oakland Monday, Cleveland Tuesday and back in Oakland Wednesday, and with a win then a weekend trip straight to New York, or Houston, to open the division series.

The one thing the Rays do know, is that after logging their 95th win on Wednesday, is that the more they win the better chances of playing past Sunday.

Thus Cash’s goal:

“Get to 96 on Friday and then we’ll see where we’re going. But they’re pretty motivated.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.