There have been moments when the regular season has felt like one long joy ride for the Rays. They have been consistent, persistent and, most of all, slump-resistant through the season’s first five months.
But if the last three games in Toronto have taught us anything, it is that October baseball is bound to look, and feel, a whole lot different in Tampa Bay.
It’s not just that the red-hot Blue Jays won 6-3 on Wednesday to take two out of three games in the series. It’s not even that, for the first time since early July, the Rays come home from a road trip with a losing record at 4-5.
No, the point is that the pretenders are slowly being eliminated in the American League.
And when you look around at the teams still standing, that solid foundation begins to feel just a little wobbly.
“Look, we know the teams that are all competing right now,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The four that are in playoff contention in the American League East are all very, very talented teams. And you can’t rule out the guys out West. But we know these teams very well, and you don’t ever underestimate Toronto, New York or Boston.”
Here’s another way of looking at it:
Other than the Rays, there are seven teams currently sporting a winning record in the AL. Tampa Bay is 37-37 against those teams. Against the rest of the AL, the Rays are 41-14.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s exactly what a good team is supposed to do. The Rays have not had any letdowns against inferior competition and, for that reason, still have a comfortable eight-game lead in the AL East with 16 games to go.
But the Rays came into the Toronto series as the highest-scoring team in Major League Baseball and, in 22 innings against Blue Jays starters Alek Manoah, Jose Berrios and Robbie Ray, scored a total of two runs on nine hits with 27 strikeouts.
“Their pitching is a lot different now than it was in, say, March or April,” Cash said.
The Rays had more success against Toronto’s bullpen in the series, but it wasn’t much of a factor on Wednesday. The Blue Jays jumped out to a 3-0 lead after their first four hitters, with shortstop Bo Bichette taking Tampa Bay starter Michael Wacha deep.
With Ray, a top Cy Young Award candidate on the mound, that three-run lead was looking pretty formidable. In five starts against Tampa Bay this season, Ray is 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA, 46 strikeouts and three walks in 34 innings.
And the Rays are scheduled to face him again at Tropicana Field next week.
“Facing him three or four times this year, we thought we had an answer for him somewhat,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “You just have to tip your cap to him.”
The Rays had brief hope in the fifth when Zunino joined the 30-homer club with a towering fly ball that just cleared the fence in leftfield, but Wacha quickly gave up two more runs in the bottom of the inning.
“It feels like we’ve been on the road a long time,” Cash said of the trip that began in Boston and went to Detroit before Toronto. “We really would have liked to have pulled out this game today … but we’ve got to get back home, see our fans and see if we can get on a little bit of a roll.”
The Rays are still comfortably above the fray while the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees continue to fight for two wild-card spots in the season’s final three weeks. And maybe it was inevitable that the Rays hit a little bump after building such a big lead, but a 6-8 record to start September feels a little off-key.
“If this stretch was in May, then it doesn’t get as escalated as it is in September with everything going on,” Zunino said. “Adversity is good. You want to be battle-tested to be ready for that playoff push.
“This division and these series and who we face ultimately makes us great.”
Rays magic numbers
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 (Yankees/Blue Jays)
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.com.
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