ST. PETERSBURG — Thanks to a quirk of the schedule, the Rays’ first meeting of the season with the Astros included champagne showers for the visitors.
In beating the Rays 4-0 Monday, Houston celebrated clinching the American League West division title for the fifth time in six years.
And provided a reminder of the challenges that are ahead for the Rays, whose bid to secure one of the three American League wild-card playoff berths, and potentially face the Astros (97-51) for higher stakes later in October, stalled with the loss.
“Yes, it’s a pretty good test,” said Rays outfielder/first baseman Harold Ramirez. “I know we’re going to face those guys in the playoffs, too. But we just have to compete.”
The Rays, who dropped to 82-65, one game behind the race-leading Blue Jays and a half game ahead of the Mariners, didn’t make it much of a game Monday before a Tropicana Field gathering of 10,390.
They managed only five hits against a trio of Houston pitchers in being shut out for the eighth time, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, getting a man on in eight of the nine innings but leaving 10 on.
“I think it’s bad luck,” said Ramirez, who had three of their hits. “Because I see a lot of guys take very good at-bats, very good contact. Nobody’s swinging at a slider in the dirt. So just bad luck.”
It was also a failure to be opportunistic, such as in the first inning when Yandy Diaz’s leadoff walk, a one-out Wander Franco single and a wild pitch put runners on third and second but no further as Randy Arozarena struck out and Ramirez popped out.
“Felt like we squared some balls up didn’t have much to show for it,” manager Kevin Cash said.
Starter Drew Rasmussen put the Rays in an immediate hole, giving up a homer to leadoff man Jose Altuve. He gave up three more in a messy sixth that started with an Altuve single, a Jeremy Pena walk, an RBI single by Yordan Alvarez and a two-run broken-bat double over a drawn-in infield.
“At the end of the day, their ability to put the ball in play took us out of the game, and that falls on me,” said Rasmussen, who allowed four runs for the second straight start after seven straight of two or fewer. “My responsibility as a starter is to keep us in it and give us a chance, and I mean, that sixth inning really, really hampered what we can do offensively.”
The schedule provides the Rays a rigorous test over the final 2 1/2 weeks, as they host the Astros for three games and the Blue Jays for four, then visit the Central Division-leading Guardians and Houston for a rematch before finishing in Boston.
All-Star Shane McClanahan, who starts Tuesday, was among the Rays looking forward to the challenge.
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“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s up to us. You’re going to see these teams in the playoffs and it’s going to be a lot of fun, truthfully.
“I think the tougher the competition we have I think the better we play. It’s just the way this group of guys are built. We love the big moment, we love the competition.”
Having opted for a simple toast when they clinched a playoff spot Friday, the Astros went for the wet and wild celebration Monday, popping bottles in the visitors’ clubhouse.
“These kind of moments are special,” manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s not the ultimate goal, but we took the first step. The club has been consistent all season long. It’s a great group of guys and they deserve it. We’re not done with what we want to accomplish.”
The Rays are well aware.
“In my opinion, they are the best team,” Ramirez said. “You can see they are, because they win a lot, they have good players. But we still have to compete. I believe in all my teammates.”
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