ST. PETERSBURG — The frustration Brooks Raley showed as Whit Merrifield’s shot carried over the leftfield wall for a three-run homer was all you needed to see to know how Saturday night turned out for the Rays.
What had been a dazzling pitching duel between Rays starter Drew Rasmussen and Blue Jays counterpart Alek Manoah was now in Raley’s left hand.
Taking over in the seventh after Rasmussen allowed a one-out double to Teoscar Hernandez, the left-handed Raley got ahead of pinch-hitter Danny Jansen 0-2, but let him wriggle off and work a walk. Now having to face the right-handed Merrifield, and rather than possibly put him on, Raley threw what he felt was a pretty good first-pitch slider. Merrifield took an even better swing.
“Unfortunately that was kind of the end of game right there in that spot,” Raley said. “So obviously an emotional feeling, right? You come into that situation, you want to be successful.”
Instead it was a 3-1 loss, which allowed the Blue Jays (85-67) to move a game back ahead of the Rays (84-68) at the top of the three-team American League wild-card field. The Mariners (83-68) won to move just a half game back of the Rays. Of note, the Orioles (79-71) are four behind Seattle.
With 10 games remaining, starting with Sunday’s home regular-season finale, the Rays know every day is going to be a battle.
“Obviously there’s two teams just absolutely duking it out for a spot in the playoffs and whatnot,” Raley said. “So credit those guys — they played hard tonight, we played hard tonight. They had a good pitching performance, (Rasmussen) did a heck of a job.
“So this is playoff baseball. We knew that coming into this month. You want to win these games and it hurts because you want to win. But it’s not gonna change anything about (Sunday); come out here and play hard again.
“So this is good for all of us to kind of wear that, feel that, and then obviously embrace it because it’s part of the sport. Tough night for me tonight, but I’ll be back out there (Sunday).”
Rasmussen, who had allowed just two hits through six dominant innings, could have kept the ball in his hands had he gotten Hernandez out. He was asked about starting the seventh and said he was up for it, but knew if a runner got on, the Rays would go to the pen.
“It was pretty simple — keep them off the bases and I had a chance to finish the inning,” he said.
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Still Rasmussen, coming off a couple of relatively rough outings, including at Toronto on Sept. 14, had an impressive performance. That included working his way out a slightly messy sixth inning in which he loaded the bases on a double and two walks.
“Really, really impressed with Drew,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Certainly coming back from his last outing against Toronto, not that he got banged up but they scored some runs, pieced together two big innings against him. So really encouraged with the way he threw the ball.”
The problem was that Manoah, the Jays’ demonstrative ace, was better. After scoring 10 runs against the Jays in each of the previous two games, the Rays were shut down and shut out through seven innings by Manoah, who scattered four hits and struck out eight.
“He’s just really talented,” Cash said. “He’s got a good feel for what he wants to do. He can run a fastball up, he can sink a fastball, he’s got a couple different shapes of the breaking ball. So I don’t think any hitter gets the same look consistently. Just a very good pitcher.”
He didn’t allow his first hit until two outs in the fourth, when Randy Arozarena laced a double to left-centerfield, his 40th of the season. That made him the first player in Rays history to have at least 20 homers, 30 steals and 40 doubles in a single season, and the 20th in major-league history.
These are the kind of battles the Rays are in for.
“You look at who we play the remainder of the schedule, and you know every game is going to be intense, every game is going to be tight,” Rasmussen said. “Every game means a little bit more at this point, but our fate’s in our hands, which is really nice. It’s a good spot to be in.
“We’ve set ourselves up for the potential to play postseason baseball. It’s just more fun in this kind of atmosphere, so it’s a really exciting time right now.”
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