The world is a better place when the Rays’ defense plays like this

Several Tampa Bay fielders flash the leather in a 5-2 win against Toronto on Friday night.
The Rays' Brandon Lowe attempts a double play after forcing out the Blue Jays' Matt Chapman at second during the third inning Friday. Santiago Espinal was safe at first.
The Rays' Brandon Lowe attempts a double play after forcing out the Blue Jays' Matt Chapman at second during the third inning Friday. Santiago Espinal was safe at first. [ SCOTT AUDETTE | AP ]
Published May 14, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Next time you’re tempted to take the Rays’ defense for granted, remember what you saw in Friday night’s 5-2 win against the Blue Jays.

It wasn’t just that Wander Franco made a highlight-worthy play with a leaping, spinning throw that looked like vintage Derek Jeter. And it wasn’t just that Randy Arozarena robbed Matt Chapman with a diving catch in leftfield.

It wasn’t even that third baseman Taylor Walls helped shut down two potential rallies with perfectly executed around-the-horn double plays.

It was that Tampa Bay was doing all this during a pitchers duel while the Blue Jays were kicking and throwing the ball around Tropicana Field.

“Wander’s play was a highlight reel, and so was Randy’s,” manager Kevin Cash said. “That ball was crushed, and (Franco) got a good read on it, a good jump on it and full extension. We know that lineup is really good and the last thing you want to do is give them any favors of getting going. So, encouraged with the plays and like to see it continue.”

The double plays were not as flashy, but they may have contributed even more to the victory considering the timing. Toronto had a runner on first and no out in the fourth when Walls turned the first one with Vladimir Guerrero at the plate, and the Blue Jays had just tied the score in the eighth at 2 when reliever Andrew Kittredge got Guerrero to hit into another one.

“Our double plays were big. ‘Wallsy’ is so secure over there,” Cash said. “When you’re facing that team and it’s a 2-1 or 2-0 ballgame, you know there’s got to be a lot of defense involved.”

Choi in a rut since returning

While Manuel Margot had a successful return to the lineup, Ji-Man Choi is having a harder time coming back from an injury. Choi was hitting .357 with a .491 on-base percentage when loose bodies in his elbow sent him to the injured list at the end of April. He is hitless in 14 at-bats since returning to the lineup, including eight strikeouts, though he drove in a run with a force out Friday night. It was Choi’s sixth trip to the injured list since 2019. “It’s nothing new to me,” said Choi through team interpreter Daniel Park. “I’m not in the best condition, but I’m trying to do my best and get back to what I was before.”

No messing around

It wasn’t hard to figure out the problem when Ryan Yarbrough got knocked around in his season debut May 3 against Oakland. He tied a career high with three walks in less than three innings of work. His next time out, May 8, Yarbrough was more aggressive against the Mariners, throwing five shutout innings. “First and foremost, being in the strike zone and really attacking guys,” said Yarbrough, who is scheduled to pitch against the Blue Jays on Saturday night. “Setting the tone with the rhythm and tempo early on, and then attacking the zone. Not walking guys (or) getting deep into counts, and keeping guys offbalance. I feel like that’s what made me successful over the years, so it was just a matter of getting back to that.”

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Yandy Diaz was in the original lineup Friday night but was scratched with what the team called a “non-COVID related illness.” … Josh Fleming went five innings Friday night, giving up three hits and one run in his first start with Triple-A Durham since being sent down last week. Josh Lowe hit his fourth homer in his first 32 at-bats since going down. … The bullpen had only two blown saves in the first 26 games of the year, but it has since had four in the last seven games. The Rays have come back to win three of those games.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

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