ST. PETERSBURG — Friday’s game was the first of 13 the Rays and Red Sox will play over the next six weeks, a stretch that seems likely to have a significant impact on which team captures the American League East.
After the Rays won the opener, with an impressive 7-3 victory that featured a solid team effort to move within one-half game of the division leading Sox, winning pitcher Josh Fleming said they have positioned themselves well.
“I love our chances,” the second-year lefty said. “We have the best team in the East, I think. Just because we’re not in first doesn’t mean we don’t have the best team.”
Friday’s game, in front of 11,109 at Tropicana Field, was a good step toward proving that, as the Rays improved to 62-42.
Yandy Diaz, Mike Zunino and Randy Arozarena homered, and rookie Wander Franco had two extra-base hits as part of a strong all-around game as the Rays followed their 14-0 blasting of the Yankees Thursday with another strong offensive showing.
Fleming battled his way through five innings for the win, escaping a big mess in the fourth, and four relievers, including new addition JT Chargois, combined to finish.
“It’s huge to take Game 1,” Fleming said. “Scoring early like we did with Yandy’s home run was massive. When they scored two in the fourth and we answered with two right back, it’s huge. It is absolutely huge. And taking Game 1 against these guys is just one step further. (Saturday,) I think we’re going to come out and we’re going to do the same thing we did (Friday).”
Rays manager Kevin Cash was a bit more reserved but noted the Sox have been in first place for much of the season (85 days total, and the last 34).
“They’re a very, very good team,” he said. “There’s a reason why they’ve been up the top the entire time. We’re going to have to play good baseball, and (I) feel like we came out and did that. We’ll have more challenges. Certainly, (Saturday) night and then Sunday, but you feel a lot better winning the first game than not.”
Diaz got the Rays rolling with a two-out homer in the first, his seventh in 34 games after 62 (and 210 at-bats) without one.
They made it 4-0 in the third when prized addition Nelson Cruz, back in the lineup after missing two games with a bruised foot, singled. Diaz did the same, and Franco laced a double to center.
The Sox got two in the fourth, but Fleming did well to stop them there after six of the first seven reached, getting Enrique Hernandez to pop out with the bases loaded.
“It was huge,’’ Fleming said. “Just going through my head, I was like, ‘All right, this is it. No one else. No more. I’m going to get this guy, we’re going to go in, we’re going to score some runs.’”
The Rays did just that, as Zunino delivered his 20th homer of the season but first since July 10, Cash saying he kidded Zunino before the at-bat about it being a while, “and he shut me up pretty quick.” It was an opposite-field one at that, just the 10th of Zunino’s 128 to go to right and, not counting his All-Star Game blast, the first since July 27, 2018.
Arozarena then blasted a ball over the leftfield wall for his 14th homer and fourth in nine games after 21 without. A Franco triple led to the Rays’ last run.
After this weekend, the teams play three more series by early September, which could provide a lot of clarity in the race.
Diaz, noting the intensity of facing the Sox is “like playing in the World Series,” is is eager for the battle.
“That’s the mentality we have, just to get as far as we can,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “And, honestly, I think this year is going to be the year.”
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