ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays went into Thursday’s American League Division Series opener against the Red Sox confident they would resume playing as they did while compiling an AL-best 100 wins during the season.
Then they went out and did exactly that, putting on an impressive show in the 5-0 win.
Rookie Shane McClanahan delivered a strong five-inning start, and three relievers took it from there. The defense was well-positioned and sure-handed as usual. Clutch hits came from throughout the lineup: a run-scoring double by rookie Wander Franco and home runs by Nelson Cruz (off the C, as in Cruz, ring catwalk) and October 2020 star Randy Arozarena, who added to the excitement with a brazen steal of home.
It was the kind of night the Rays could feel good about.
So good, in fact, several were munching popcorn on the bench during the later innings.
“Yeah, it was relaxing,” Cruz said. “I was there watching the game. We were winning by five runs. So let me eat my popcorn and enjoy it.”
Manager Kevin Cash had a lot to enjoy, as well, as the Rays took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series, with Game 2 on Friday night, and looked as complete a team as they did over much of the previous six months.
“It did feel pretty fitting (Thursday),” Cash said. “When we think we’re right, that’s how we win.”
Much as he was most of last postseason, Arozarena was the star in front of a loud and yellow-towel-waving — but far from sold-out — Tropicana Field crowd of 27,419 in the Rays’ first home playoff game with fans since Oct. 8 2019.
He got the Rays the early lead that surely relaxed them, drawing a leadoff walk off Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez, who wouldn’t get through the second, then racing home on a good send by third-base coach Rodney Linares when Franco laced a ball to left-center that Boston’s Enrique Hernandez bobbled.
Arozarena, who hit a record 10 home runs in the 2020 postseason, got this one off to a good start by going deep in the fifth, showing the power from the pair of new black Stetson cowboy boots he wore on the field before the game for good luck, similar to last year.
He patted his chest, tossed his bat, gestured to the Rays dugout as he headed around the bases. Fans welcomed him back to leftfield the next inning, chanting “Ran-dy, Ran-dy, Ran-dy.”
He made his most electrifying move in the seventh. After getting to third on a two-out walk and another Franco double, Arozarena, taking a big lead against lefty Josh Taylor with the Sox shifted against left-handed hitter Brandon Lowe, broke for home and made it easily.
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It was the first steal of home in a postseason game since Javier Baez for the Cubs in the 2016 National League Championship Series. And, arguably, the first straight steal — with no throw to third or a missed bunt, as with Cleveland’s Marquis Grissom in the 1997 ALCS — since Jackie Robinson in the 1955 World Series.
“It’s a great baseball play,” Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He had a great baseball game (Thursday).”
McClanahan didn’t look like a 24-year-old rookie — the second in Rays history to make a traditional (non-opener) start in a playoff series, joining Matt Moore (2011 ALDS) — and fourth in any postseason game.
He said he caught himself during warmups getting caught up in the coolness of the moment, then telling himself, “you’ve got to focus.” He did, striking out three around a single in the first inning, while allowing only five hits and no walks. The Rays needed only three relievers to finish and, even better, none of their three most trusted in Pete Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge and Collin McHugh.
“A lot of questions about Shane coming in, and rightfully so,” Cash said. “He hasn’t done it in a postseason that much. I think he answered a lot of them with just his poise, the composure that he showed on the mound and just making quality pitches.”
Cruz, the 42-year-old veteran, said popcorn is usually one of the snacks available in the dugout, with Arozarena and Manuel Margot the most frequent consumers. Thursday, he decided to join in.
“I was hungry,” he said. “It was like 11 o’clock. We normally start the game a little earlier. Around that time I already have dinner, so I was hungry.”
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