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Three games into 2020 and the Rays have that magic feeling again

John Romano | The odds said Tampa Bay was a 99-1 shot to win. Wendle, KK and B-Lowe had something to say about that.
Turn and burn: Kevin Kiermaier was 0-for-11 before this two-run walkoff hit in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5 on Sunday, July 26, 2020, at Tropicana Field.
Turn and burn: Kevin Kiermaier was 0-for-11 before this two-run walkoff hit in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5 on Sunday, July 26, 2020, at Tropicana Field. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published Jul. 27, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s not get carried away, the Rays were not dead Sunday afternoon.

They were merely, as Miracle Max says in the Princess Bride, mostly dead. According to one mathematical model, a team down 4-2 with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning is going to lose 98.5 percent of the time. And that’s the hopeful version. Another model says 98.8.

Of course, odds don’t seem to mean much to these guys. Neither do overturned umpire calls, slow runners, hitter’s slumps or bang-bang plays at first base. So if you’re curious about the mechanics of a miracle, here’s a step-by-step guide, courtesy of your 2020 Tampa Bay Rays.

Step 1: The manager is always right

Kevin Cash could have gone another direction. With Toronto’s right-handed closer Ken Giles on the mound in the ninth, Cash could have stuck with lefty-hitting catcher Michael Perez with two outs. Instead, he sent up pinch-hitter Joey Wendle.

That meant the Rays were out of left-handed hitters. It also meant, if they tied it, they would need to replace Perez with their third and final catcher, Kevan Smith. They were burning two bench guys to swap one left-handed hitter for another.

Wendle doubled to rightfield. He is now 7-for-16 as a pinch-hitter in his career.

“That’s Joey,” Cash said. “Joey’s ready to play.”

Step 2: Remember, the manager is always right

Following walks to Willy Adames, Yoshi Tsutsugo and Ji-Man Choi, the Rays were down 4-3 with the bases loaded, and Cash had another decision. Lefty-hitting Brandon Lowe was slated to face new Toronto left-hander Brian Moran.

Lowe came into the game as a career .270 hitter against right-handers and a .224 hitter against left-handers. Cash had right-handed infielder Mike Brousseau (a career .306 hitter against lefties) on the bench. He let Lowe hit.

Lowe pulled a hard grounder to the right side of the infield, raced down the line and dove safely into the bag, just before first baseman Vladimir Guerrero tossed the ball to Moran covering. Adames, meanwhile, came home with the tying run.

“B-Lowe was really frustrated on opening day with an at-bat,” Cash said “But he hasn’t looked back since.”

Step 3: Deep breaths

The Rays appeared to deftly dodge the new extra-inning rule that places a runner on second base to start each inning. With one out, Smith gunned down Santiago Espinal trying to steal third. Except the Jays challenged the call and replay showed Espinal somehow eluded Wendle’s tag. One pitch later, Espinal scored on a sacrifice fly.

“It’s a quick range of emotions,” Cash said. “From being ecstatic that we throw him out, and then it’s turned over, and next pitch, boom, sac fly.”

The Blue Jays were back up 5-4.

Step 4: Okay, sometimes the manager is lucky

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Opting to keep Wendle in the game, Cash put Smith in Yandy Diaz’s spot in the lineup.

Oops.

Since Diaz made the final out in the ninth, that meant his spot in the batting order would be the automatic runner on second when the Rays came up in the bottom of the 10th. And since the Rays had no more catchers, that meant the 230-pound Smith had to go to second base as the potential tying run. Was that part of the master strategy?

“That one, no, not really,” Cash said. “We learned a lot in that game, I can tell you that. There was a lot of in-game decision-making going on.”

As it turns out, Smith wasn’t the only big guy chugging around the bases.

Step 5: This is why you get veteran hitters

Jose Martinez missed most of summer camp after testing positive for the coronavirus, and he got off to a 1-for-8 start at the plate. Leading off the 10th, with Smith on second base, Martinez fell behind reliever Shun Yamaguchi 1-2. The 6-foot-6 Martinez proceeded to foul off three two-strike pitches before working a walk and joining Smith on the bases.

“I’ve been chasing and swinging at high pitches,” Martinez said, “so I just tried to simplify everything.”

Step 6: Trust your guys

It had not been Kevin Kiermaier’s best weekend. The Rays centerfielder was 0-for-11 at that point, including going hitless five times with runners in scoring position. Needing at least one run to tie it, an argument could have been made to have Kiermaier bunt the runners over. Instead, he took a first-pitch ball, then roped a slider down the rightfield line.

Game over.

“I told (Cash) after the game, 29 other managers probably would have had me bunt right there,” Kiermaier said. “But he told me right away to swing the bat. I appreciate that from him.”

What are the odds that all of those decisions worked out for Tampa Bay? You know the answer.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.