For the Rays, it was challenging enough to shut down the high-flying Toronto Blue Jays. Tuesday night brought something really unexpected. The Rays shut them out.
Following the Rays’ tension-filled 2-0 victory at Toronto’s Rogers Centre — after a game with superb pitching, brilliant defense and clutch solo home runs from Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe — catcher Mike Zunino made this clubhouse proclamation:
“That’s what a playoff game feels like.”
With 17 games to play, the Rays (90-55) increased their American League East lead to nine games over the Blue Jays and Yankees (both at 81-64), while the Red Sox were at 81-65 heading into Tuesday night’s late game at the Mariners.
With right-hander Drew Rasmussen providing five mostly no-sweat innings, then the recently beleaguered bullpen cleaning up nicely, the previously red-hot Jays were limited to three hits and one runner in scoring position while being shut out for only the third time this season (every other MLB team has been blanked at least five times).
After the Jays scored 114 runs and hit 36 homers in their last 13 games — the gaudiest 13-game marks in MLB history — they largely were silenced one night after riddling the Rays with 17 hits. This time, the Jays were retired six times with 1-2-3 innings.
“Drew, maybe as much as anybody, commands the fastball,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “That allows him to throw it so much. They’re a good hitting team — period. But when you’re executing pitches, when you’re throwing it where you want, it presents challenges.”
Rasmussen (3-1) was only at 52 pitches after five innings, but Cash didn’t deviate from the game plan and summoned the bullpen, which had a 5.77 ERA in its last 15 games dating to Aug. 29.
Pete Fairbanks, JT Chargois, David Robertson and Andrew Kittredge followed Rasmussen’s example and made it look easy, setting down the last 12 Jays batters in order after a sixth-inning leadoff single.
“To see how well our pitching staff did and also how well our defense played, that really gives our team a lot of confidence,” said Rasmussen, acquired from the Brewers on May 21 and making only his sixth start after being moved from the bullpen. “We can match up with anyone. There are a lot of confident guys in our clubhouse. If we take care of business on our end, we’re going to be in a good position in a couple of weeks.”
The bullpen did its job. The defense was spectacular. Shortstop Joey Wendle opened the game with a diving spear of a line drive, then helped turn an acrobatic first-inning double play. Centerfielder Manuel Margot ran down a deep drive, then lunged to rescue a sinking liner. Rightfielder Randy Arozarena went horizontal, diving to glove another hard-hit ball.
Choi delivered the first homer in the second off hard-luck Jays starter Jose Berrios (11-8), who allowed four hits in seven innings. When Berrios left with an abdominal injury, left-handed reliever Tim Mayza surrendered a first-pitch, one-out solo homer to Lowe (his team-leading 34th) in the eighth.
But Rasmussen was the biggest story.
“Nothing short of incredible,” Lowe said. “To be a back-end guy like he was in Milwaukee, then to come over here and still be a back-end guy, then to flip the switch and say (become a starter), not a whole lot of guys can do that. He has been nothing short of incredible.”
Rasmussen’s biggest inning was the fourth, when George Springer doubled and Marcus Semien walked. The Jays had their 3-4-5 hitters next.
“Those are not the guys you want coming up,” Cash said.
But after going 3-0 to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the AL Most Valuable Player favorite and a Triple Crown contender, Rasmussen coaxed a liner to Margot. He struck out Bo Bichette. Then he got Teoscar Hernandez on another well-hit ball to Margot.
“Probably the most pivotal point in the game for us,” Cash said.
“When you fall behind Vlad 3-0, at that point, you’ve got to throw the baseball over the plate,” Rasmussen said. “With how good our defense is, I’d trust anyone to run that ball down in the outfield. You just throw the ball over the plate and give our guys a chance to make the play. Let things fall where they will. If you work ahead in counts, you can limit a bit of the damage they can do.”
It sounds simple. But it was nerve-wracking.
“It definitely felt very postseason-like,” Lowe said. “Every at-bat was tense on both sides of the diamond.”
But the Rays thrived. It was a shutdown, then a shutout.
8 To make American League playoffs
9 To win East Division
Combination of wins by the Rays and losses by the No. 3 team in wild-card field (Red Sox) and the second-place team in division (Blue Jays and Yankees)
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