TORONTO — What started as a good day for the Rays, with a 4-2 win over the Blue Jays in the opener of Tuesday’s doubleheader, was headed toward a great finish as they took a one-run lead in the seventh inning of the nightcap.
Then their sweep dreams disappeared as reliever Colin Poche came in and made a huge mess, allowing the Jays four runs in a five-batter span of what ended up a frustrating 7-2 loss.
“Yeah, it hurts,” Poche said. “I mean, it was a long day. We fought really hard (Tuesday), and we had a good chance to come out of here with two wins, which would be big.
“So it’s tough to kind of give that away after after that big home run (in the seventh by Jonathan) Aranda. But there’s no time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a game (Wednesday) against a tough team again and play again the next day and there’s not really an off day in sight. So you’ve got to kind of flush it and move on.”
The split left the Rays 79-62 and back where they started the 12-plus hour day at Rogers Centre, just behind the Blue Jays, and possibly the Mariners pending their late result, in the three-team American League wild-card race.
Poche, who has been sharp recently, retiring 15 of his previous 16 batters, eight by strikeout, said command was his biggest problem Tuesday, and it showed quickly.
He walked leadoff man Santiago Espinal on four pitches. After striking out Matt Chapman, he threw two wild pitches, moving Espinal to third before walking pinch-hitter Danny Jansen. Then he gave up a first-pitch double to Whit Merrifield that scored two, and two pitches later a two-run homer to George Springer.
“I think it just kind of got away from him,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s been on a pretty good run for us. The four-pitch walk, generally you see Colin is able to kind of reset himself. It didn’t look like he could.”
Added Poche: “Anytime you come out of the bullpen and walk the lead-off guy on four pitches, it’s not a good recipe. Then you walk a second guy before you even get an out or two, you can’t do that against any lineup, especially the one that they’ve got over there.”
There were a few positives in the nightcap.
Yonny Chirinos, in his first start and second outing after a two-plus year injury absence, worked four scoreless innings. Ji-Man Choi homered off Jays ace Alek Manoah in the third, ending a six-game homerless streak for the team (longest since 2013), and hitting his first since Aug. 26. Aranda, the sweet-swinging rookie, got his first homer off Manoah and the ball as a souvenir. Kevin Herget, the 31-year-old career minor-leaguer, made his big-league debut. Randy Arozarena stole his 30th base.
The Rays were resourceful in winning the opener, scoring three times on outs and a fourth on a mad dash from first to home by Arozarena.
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“Sometimes he’s his own third base coach and manager, and he (thinks he’s) invisible,” Cash said. “It’d better work.”
Pitching also was a key to the victory.
Jeffrey Springs delivered a strong start with six shutout innings, extending his scoreless streak to 16 2/3 innings and logging a career-high 19 swing-and-misses. Shawn Armstrong got five outs but gave up two runs in the eighth. And Pete Fairbanks survived a tense ninth, striking out Vlad Guerrero Jr. with two on and then prevailing in what Cash called an “epic” 11-pitch battle with red-hot Bo Bichette to seal the win.
“I’m trying to attack in the strike zone for as long as I can,” Fairbanks said. “And then either one of us is going to win it eventually. And today that was us getting a ground out to get out of it.”
But it was Arozarena who got them off and running. Most memorably in the third inning, with the Rays up 3-0.
Having twice been denied his 30th steal, with interference called on Manuel Margot for hitting Jansen with his back swing, Arozarena was in motion again when Margot singled softly to leftfield.
Instead of just going from first to third, he made a daring decision to try to score, and did, helped by Jays leftfielder Teoscar Hernandez playing the ball casually, then making a very high throw home. To further sell the plan, Arozarena initially slowed on his way to third, then sped up.
“When I (broke to) second on that play, I saw where the ball was. It was in leftfield, so on my way to third, normally the play there would be the (leftfielder) would throw it to second base to hold the guy from first,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “So as I had that in my mind, I decided to just keep on going.”
Third base coach Rodney Linares was pointing at second to let Arozarena know that’s where the ball was going, but he didn’t notice. “I was just kind of imagining it myself,” Arozarena said. “I was just kind of thinking that’s going to be the situation, and I was able to score.”
Arozarena, at times, can be reckless on the bases, having run into 12 outs, third most in the majors. His Rays mates raved about this play.
“It was incredible,” Fairbanks said. “I mean, he’s got a habit — at times, to his detriment — but he will turn nothing into something, and when it happens it’s fascinating to watch.”
Added Springs: “It’s surprising — but then, it’s not surprising. He plays so hard, so wide open, and he’s got a good baseball IQ, so he picks and chooses his moments. But it was pretty cool.”
Arozarena’s hustle also helped in the first, when he grounded to third raced to first to prevent a double play, allowing the first run to score. The Rays added two others on productive outs.
Still, as Cash said, “a long day.”
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