The smile on Brandon Lowe’s face may have been the most telling sign of how the frustration the Rays felt through the first six innings Wednesday gave way to celebration, as they ran their winning streak to four with a 3-1 win over the Angels.
Ryan Yarbrough, working behind opener Andrew Kittredge, battled himself as much as the Angels but got the Rays to the seventh down 1-0. The defense made a handful of key plays. Ryan Thompson got arguably the most important outs, striking out uber-dangerous Mike Trout with a man on to end the seventh, and getting a double-play grounder to diffuse a threat in the eighth.
And Lowe delivered the biggest hit, a three-run homer in the seventh.
“No secret I’ve been struggling a little bit,” said Lowe, who came into the game hitting .190 overall and 1-for-10 in the series. “So it felt really good to hit the ball that solid and kind of see it fly out of the yard, especially in a big situation to get our team the lead and give us a little breathing room for our pitchers.”
There wasn’t much to feel good about until that point.
Though Shohei Ohtani walked six, the Angels’ two-way standout allowed the Rays only one hit while working into the sixth and struck out five, mixing a fastball that pushed 100 mph with a splitter that dove as it crossed the plate.
“It says a little bit when the guy can go up there and pitch for four or five innings cruising at 96 and when he wants to he can bump it up to 100,” Lowe said. “Everything kind of moves different ways, and it’s pretty difficult when a pitcher out there has such electric stuff.”
Yarbrough, who has been significantly more successful pitching behind an opener than starting, had to battle through his four-plus innings.
He took over in the third and that didn’t start well, with a leadoff double by No. 9 hitter Jose Rojas, then back-to-back bunts (one that worked when Yoshi Tsutsugo was late covering first, one that didn’t) putting runners on third and second.
The intentional walk to Trout, which loaded the bases, was a good move. The ensuing four-pitch walk to lefty Jared Walsh was obviously not, putting the Rays down 1-0.
“I was just encouraged that he could’ve got frustrated with himself and let his guard down,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But he didn’t. He stayed at it and continued to just make pitch after pitch.”
The winning rally started benignly in the seventh. Phillips drew a leadoff walk, the seventh of the Rays’ eight free passes on the night (plus a hit batter). Willy Adames then blooped a ball to short left that dropped in for the Rays’ second hit.
Cash had moved Lowe to the leadoff spot so he would see more fastballs. A walk and two strikeouts his first three times up weren’t encouraging, but that changed when he drove a 2-1 fastball from Junior Guerra 416 feet over the centerfield fence.
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“Good for Brandon,” Cash said. “He’s been scuffling a little bit, wearing it on his sleeve. That was a big, big hit. I was excited to see him smiling afterwards. That was the big hit of the game that we needed, and he came up with it.”
The Rays, who got Pete Fairbanks back in their bullpen Wednesday but put Diego Castillo on the injured list, still had to seal the deal.
Trout came up with two outs and one on in the seventh, and the chance to tie the game with one swing. Thompson was up for the challenge, and won the battle.
“It was huge,” Thompson said. “Mike Trout is, in my opinion, hands-down the best player in the game right now. And he will be for a long time.”
Pitching a second inning has been tough for Thompson at times, and the eighth didn’t start well when he gave up a single to Jared Walsh and hit Jose Iglesias. “It was just a matter of just kind of not letting the game speed me up,” he said.
Thompson got a break when the Angels couldn’t execute a bunt and another when centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier alertly backed up the play when catcher Francisco Mejia’s throw behind the runner at second was off target. Then he got Phil Gosselin to hit the ground ball they needed that Adames turned into a double play. Jeffrey Springs finished from there.
The Rays turned three double plays and made several other key plays along the way.
“That’s us. We’re built to play really, really good defense behind our pitchers, give ourselves every opportunity to prevent scoring runs,” Cash said. “And nights like tonight where it’s tough to get runs, that defense really shows up.
“I think as much as anything, our defense won the ballgame for us. Kept us right there when we were down 1-0 and just bought the the offense some time to come up with a big hit from Brandon.”
The win moved the Rays to a season-high-matching two games over .500 at 17-15 and gave them an 11th series win in Anaheim, Calif., in their last 13. And if left them feeling good about themselves.
“We have a fun team, man,’' Thompson said. “It’s fun, because we’re kind of showing that spark that we had all last year where it was just a collective unit of, you know, we could be behind and it just felt like we were ahead the whole time.
“So even though we had a bunch of missed opportunities, and we’ve had a bunch of those this year, we’re never sitting down there being like, ‘Oh, man, we needed that.’ Of course, it’d be nice to have it, but we have a lot of clutch hitters in that lineup that’ll pick us up when our pitching staff doesn’t do our part early on.”
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