ST. PETERSBURG — The beer, milk and baby powder were flying freely around the shower room in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field following the Rays’ 5-4 win over the Blue Jays on Sunday.
For all the bad news there has been lately about Rays pitchers, including top reliever Nick Anderson becoming the ninth to be sidelined by injury, the Rays had things to celebrate, and they were going to do it up — or at least the way baseball players do. Josh Fleming and John Curtiss where wheeled into the shower in laundry carts and doused with whatever was within reach.
“Very cold. Didn’t smell very good,” Fleming said. “Just a mixture of a bunch of things.”
Not that he was complaining. The 24-year-old lefty prospect, a 2017 fifth-round pick from Division III Webster University, had been called up to make his big-league debut Sunday, filling one of the gaps in the rotation, and he worked five solid, impressive innings for the win.
Curtiss wasn’t complaining, either.
The 27-year-old who signed as a minor-league free agent in February — the Rays are his fourth organization in a little more than a year — is getting an opportunity in different bullpen roles, and Sunday that meant getting the final five outs for his first major-league save.
“It is a good day,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Anytime you see a young guy come up, debuts, pitches good enough, deserves the win, got the win, it’s pretty exciting. And the same goes for Curtiss on the back end.”
The individual accomplishments were worthy of acknowledgement.
Plus, they were somewhat connected. Curtiss and Fleming were paired as throwing partners in the Port Charlotte group of the July Spring 2.0 workouts.
“It was pretty special,” Curtiss said. “The only thing I thought about (Sunday) other than really wanting to execute each individual pitch was, in between the eighth and ninth (innings), I did think to myself, I wanted to make sure ‘Flem’ got his first win.”
The Rays also had reason to thank Fleming and Curtiss for stepping in and stepping up, given the gaping holes that injuries have torn in their staff. Anderson is the sixth member of the planned opening day bullpen to be sidelined, and the rotation is missing Charlie Morton and Yonny Chirinos, plus top fill-in Brendan McKay.
The win continued the Rays’ impressive 15-4 run. They improved to 19-10 overall and extended their American League East lead to a full game over the idle Yankees.
But if they are going to maintain that lead in a coronavirus-shortened season that reaches the halfway point today, they will continue to need contributions from the likes of Fleming, Curtiss and other unfamiliar names on their staff.
“They’ve been outstanding,” Cash said. “Sure, there’s stresses. You care about the guys that you’re asking what they’re capable of doing, what situations you’re putting them in.
“We’ve always tried to pride ourselves on putting guys in the right situations to succeed. We’re really challenging that here over the last week, for good reason, because some of our guys at the back end are down.”
Fleming, who said he felt like he has “always belonged,” got off to a good start with a 1-2-3 first. He allowed a solo homer in the second, then showed his poise, competitiveness and talent in limiting the Blue Jays to one run in a messy fourth that, with one out, included a triple, a walk, a single and another walk.
“It’s real easy for any pitcher, especially a young one, for stuff just to unravel right there,” Cash said.
Fleming walked off the mound after throwing his 72nd and final pitch to end the fifth on the hook for loss, but the Rays scored three in the bottom of the inning to put him in line for a win.
With Joey Wendle and Willy Adames on and one out against reliever Ryan Borucki, Cash pinch-hit Jose Martinez, remembering the two-run hit he got off Borucki on Friday. When the count got full, Cash started the runners, confident Martinez would deliver, which he did, with an RBI single.
An Austin Meadows sacrifice fly and a Brandon Lowe single gave the Rays a 3-2 lead.
They expanded their lead to 5-2 in the seventh, which was good for them. After Pete Fairbanks and Aaron Loup put up zeroes in their relief appearances, Diego Castillo — one of the few healthy, experienced relievers the Rays have left — gave up a two-run homer in the eighth to Lourdes Gurriel.
But Curtiss took it from there, and the wet, wild and very cold celebration was soon on.
“It’s tough to feel the temperature when you’re excited about a win,” Curtiss said.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.