BOSTON — The Rays needed a few things to go right Thursday afternoon to rebound from Wednesday’s lopsided loss to the Red Sox.
A good start by Drew Rasmussen, the right-handed reliever pressed into the rotation by Ryan Yarbrough’s COVID-19-related absence, gave them a good foundation, as he delivered four solid innings.
Another quality and disciplined at-bat by rookie Wander Franco produced the key hit, a two-run, tie-breaking homer in the sixth, with additional contributions form Mike Zunino (his 23rd homer) and Kevin Kiermaier (three hits).
And a tag-team effort from four other relievers provided the finishing touch, as Collin McHugh, a very sharp JT Chargois, Louis Head and Ryan Sherriff combined to finish the job, holding the Sox to a total of two hits after they got 19 Wednesday.
The result was a deep breath and an 8-1 victory, as the Rays did indeed bounce back. They improved their American League-best record to 70-45 and extended their East division lead to five games over the Sox, who beat them 20-8 the night before.
“It was a very important game,” Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “We played like we were supposed to play.”
Rasmussen did his part, allowing leadoff walks in the first and fourth and a two-out RBI double to Rafael Devers in the fourth but nothing else. The Rays were hoping he could get them through three innings and were thrilled he completed four, and at an efficient 50 pitches.
“He was awesome,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Good for Drew. Good for all the guys, two hits, one run in this ballpark. But Drew really stood out.”
Rasmussen, who hadn’t thrown more than three innings or 53 pitches since joining the Rays in mid-June following a trade from Milwaukee, said he felt “really good” about how the day went, especially happy to help out his fellow relievers by shaving the extra inning off their workload.
An additional challenge was the heat, with a first-pitch temperature of 95 degrees and a feels-like in excess of 100. He said he drank more bottles of water than he could count on his fingers and toes, and changed his jersey and pants after the second inning.
Franco, the 20-year-old top prospect, has been getting increasingly comfortable and more productive since his late-June call-up. Particularly impressive have been his number of extended, intense and productive at-bats.
Thursday, with the score 1-1 and Brandon Lowe on first, Franco took a strike and a ball from Sox starter Tanner Houck, then fouled off six of the next eight pitches before lacing a 92 mph sinker for a homer to center.
“There’s just not many guys that are capable of doing that,” Cash said. “Just a tremendous at-bat. We’re seeing Wander make the adjustments throughout the at-bat, at-bat to at-bat. In that moment, he had seen everything the guy had. He laid off tough, tough pitches to get himself where (Houck) kind of had to throw a strike or it was going to be two guys on.
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“Wander put a really good swing on it. Just more comfort day by day for him. He made some really nice plays at short. I couldn’t be more impressed with the way Wander’s going.”
Though Franco reacted like it was a home run, the umpires had to huddle to be sure. The ball hit to the left of the yellow stripe on the centerfield end of the Green Monster wall, so it was in play, but then caromed onto the flat elevated area that includes the base of the flagpole adjacent to the tarped-over centerfield seats which, per the complex Fenway Park ground rules, made it a homer. (And to think some people get worked up over balls hitting the Tropicana Field catwalks.)
Cash said he had no doubt the Rays would bounce back.
“We talked about (Wednesday) how it got out of hand but have all the confidence in the world for good reason these guys are going to come back and be ready to go,” he said. “These guys, they come to play, and they back that up daily.”
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