ST. PETERSBURG — Almost perfect.
Flirting with baseball immortality and on the brink of pitching the first perfect game in Rays history, starter Drew Rasmussen was philosophical after it ended on one swing.
“I mean, I’ll take it,’’ he said. “Eight perfect (innings). It helps our team’s chance of winning. I wouldn’t say it was disappointing. I came that close. Very few can say they’ve done that.’’
Rasmussen got 24 up, 24 down Sunday afternoon, then had his perfect game spoiled by Jorge Mateo, who smacked a double past diving third baseman Yandy Diaz on the first pitch of the ninth inning. Still, the right-hander and his Rays teammates concentrated on the bigger picture, their 4-1 victory against the Orioles before 18,093 roaring, foot-stomping fans at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay (60-53) maintained its position as the American League’s third and final wild-card team, opening a 1½-game lead over fourth-place Baltimore (59-55). The Rays also won the season series 10-9, meaning they hold the tiebreaker over the Orioles if the two teams are tied at the end of the regular season for a playoff spot.
Rasmussen (7-4) was in command the whole way, striking out seven, going to ball three on just two batters (both in the second inning) and not even needing an above-average defensive play as he knifed through the Orioles lineup. He threw 87 pitches, 62 for strikes.
The 27-year-old was three outs away from pitching the 24th perfect game in major-league history and the first since Aug. 15, 2012 (nearly 10 years ago to the day) when Seattle’s Felix Hernandez shut down the Rays at Safeco Field.
“I definitely thought he had a shot,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I mean, the pitch count alone, we felt comfortable with and just the way the stuff was coming out. That’s really, really tough to do. But we felt like he was on just a really good rhythm.
“There’s no doubt there’s some anxiety. You’re excited for Drew. He’s kind of in uncharted territory as a starter. It helped that he was so efficient.’’
After Randy Arozarena’s two-out, three-run homer in the third provided a 3-0 lead, the game’s focus shifted almost entirely to Rasmussen, whose precise control of his cutter and slider kept the Orioles off-balance
“He dominated,’’ said Rays reliever Jason Adam, who got the game’s final two batters on strikeouts after Rasmussen allowed a run, when Mateo scored from third on a wild pitch. “His stuff is elite. His mentality is elite. He kept his composure.
“Right there, the ball (on Mateo’s double) was a couple inches away from being an out. He probably rolls through the next two guys and we’re all jumping all over him after the game.’’
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Regardless, Rasmussen’s teammates were still in awe.
“I’ve never seen a pitching performance quite like that,’’ shortstop Taylor Walls said. “It was just electric. He had everything under control the whole game.’’
“All his pitches, he was locating well,’’ catcher Francisco Mejia said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “He was attacking the zone, inside, outside and the corners.’’
“He probably had the best breaking balls I’ve seen this year,’’ Cash said.
By the fifth inning, the perfect game became a distinct possibility. Ordinarily in a baseball dugout, with a no-hitter or perfect game on the line, the pitcher remains alone and no one acknowledges him, let alone tries to speak to him. It was different with Rasmussen.
“I noticed him talking to (Shane) McClanahan after the seventh inning,’’ Cash said. “Normally when you see pitchers get that deep (into a potential perfect game or no-hitter), they’re kind of on their own little island by themselves. But that’s not our group. They have conversations, whoever’s pitching. They’re always talking.’’
“I have to talk to people in the dugout,’’ Rasmussen said. “I hate sitting there in silence. It’s the worst. Just sit there and joke around and keep it light and fun. That’s what this team does. When you have the bond that we do, it makes being in the dugout between innings more enjoyable.’’
Rasmussen said he felt especially fresh after being limited to three innings (and 33 pitches) in his previous outing on Aug. 7 at Detroit. He entered the ninth with 79 pitches. The 80th pitch was Mateo’s double.
When Rasmussen lost the shutout on the wild pitch that scored Mateo, and Brett Phillips reached on another wild pitch following a strikeout, Cash brought in Adam for the final two outs.
Rasmussen exited to a thunderous ovation. Just before he entered the dugout, he looked up to the fans and waved, acknowledging their appreciation.
“You understand what has happened the first two times through the order, then you go out there for the seventh and have a quality inning,’’ Rasmussen said. “You go out there for the eighth, a quality inning. So you really start to understand what’s happening. It was just a really cool outing and a really cool environment to be in.’’
It was almost perfect.
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