ST. PETERSBURG — For all that has gone wrong for the Rays against the Mariners the past couple of seasons, something went very right on Thursday.
Call it an evening-out, good luck, a well-timed break.
But also call it a game-winning hit, as Brett Phillips’ seventh-inning single off the leg of Seattle pitcher Chris Flexen provided the margin in a 2-1 victory.
“We won, so definitely it was a good break,” Phillips said. “If we would have lost and that would have happened, maybe a different answer.”
The game to that point had been a tense pitching duel, albeit somewhat unorthodox, between the Mariners starter and the first four of the six Rays relievers who delivered another impressive bullpen-day performance.
Singles by Harold Ramirez and Josh Lowe to open the seventh put the Rays in good position to take the lead, but Taylor Walls grounded into a double play. With Ramirez on third, Phillips quickly got down 0-2 before slapping a change-up back to the mound.
As the ball went by, Flexen kicked his back leg to try to stop it. Instead, he redirected it toward third, allowing Ramirez to score. There was no play at first on Phillips, as the Mariners had third baseman Abraham Toro shifted behind Flexen — right where the ball was headed before it was kicked.
“As soon as I knocked it down, I knew,” Flexen said. “Just very poor on my part. We had a guy (Toro) sitting right there to get out of that situation. We get the double play, and the guys are battling on defensively. Just a poor job on my part.”
Ramirez, who had taken a lead about halfway home, said he immediately knew it was a good break.
“If the ball doesn’t hit the pitcher, it’s going to be out,” Ramirez said. “So it’s good that it hit him.”
Phillips had a big hand in the win.
In the second inning, he guessed right on a cutter and flared a single to right with two outs to score Ramirez.
In the ninth, he reacted quickly to hold J.P. Crawford to a leadoff single, then made a heads-up play when second baseman Brandon Lowe misplayed a pop-up to short right, grabbing the ball and firing to second to force Crawford.
“That’s a tough play, right?” Phillips said. “He’s going back. That’s a blooper. I was just charging hard just in case that were to happen or fall in. I’m glad I took the initiative to run in fast, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
The second bullpen-day outing by the Rays in five games worked out pretty well, too. Not as good as Saturday’s nine no-hit innings against the Red Sox, but close.
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Jeffrey Springs allowed a run in the first but otherwise delivered a solid 2-2/3 innings. He was followed by Jason Adam (1-1/3), Jalen Beeks (2), J.P. Feyereisen (2), Colin Poche (2/3) and Ryan Thompson for the final out.
Some may cringe at the idea of a planned bullpen day with no set starter or even a bulk-inning pitcher. But Thompson said the Rays’ relief corps welcomes the challenge.
“Our bullpen has been amazing,” he said. “This year, especially with some of the injuries we’ve had … our bullpen has kind of had to take a lot more load. And we’ve just done a really good job. Doing some roles some of us aren’t really accustomed to. …
“I think we’re just doing a really good job being a team down there in the bullpen and just picking each other up and keeping each other in the game and making sure we’re all prepared for whatever situation.”
The pesky Mariners won six of seven games against the Rays last year, coming from behind five times, and nine of the past 11 before Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win on Wednesday.
Did Rays manager Kevin Cash view Thursday’s victory as a sign that things have turned?
“Maybe,” he said. “We go up there for four games (next week) so we’ll see. They’re a talented team. They play really hard. They’ve played us extremely tough for a couple years now.”
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