ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays pride themselves on their versatility, creativity and ability to do things differently.
Normally, that’s front-office talk and coach-speak. Thursday, it transferred to the field, where the Rays beat the Blue Jays 6-3, the victory a product of a series of unusual events.
• Starter Zach Eflin working seven solid innings without striking out a batter, and the Rays winning with just one (or no) strikeouts for the first time since 2011.
• Three players (Luke Raley, Taylor Walls and Wander Franco) stealing at least two bases for the first time in a game in franchise history. Randy Arozarena also swiped one in the Rays’ second seven-steal game in nine days, most by any team this season.
• Turning two double plays against speedy ex-teammate Kevin Kiermaier, who had been doubled up twice only three times previously in his career.
“This team is very versatile,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “A lot of guys can do a lot of different things.”
The Rays improved their majors-best record to 37-15 in taking three of four (despite being outscored 30-20) from the struggling Jays, who lost for the ninth time in their past 11 games to drop to 26-25.
Eflin said he didn’t feel good waking up for the afternoon game and “knew it was going to be a grinder day.”
He didn’t know how much, as it was the first time he went without a strikeout in a start (except for an injury-abbreviated, three-inning outing in 2016). He became just the fourth Ray to work at least seven innings without striking out a batter, joining an interesting group of Mark Hendrickson (2004), Joe Kennedy (2002) and Albie Lopez (2001).
“I think that’s honestly pretty impressive to go seven innings with zero punchies (strikeouts),” Eflin said. “I think that’s harder to do than seven innings and 10 strikeouts.
“It was just one of those days where I was praying they were going to ground into double plays and just get early contact. I look forward to kind of getting back into routine.”
Manager Kevin Cash said the key was “elite pitch execution” by Eflin: That’s a lineup that doesn’t strike out very much. We’ve seen that time and time again from them. But to get them to swing early in the count and not drive the ball, it speaks to Zach’s stuff and what he’s featuring and where he’s putting it.”
Though Eflin gave up six hits and two walks, his defense helped him limit the damage to one run over his seven innings.
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Arozarena made a huge play in the first, cutting off a run-scoring single to left by Brandon Belt to keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at second base with one out, limiting the Jays’ chances to add on.
Then the Rays were in the right spot to turn two double plays when Kiermaier sharply hit grounders with a runner on, the first double-double for the ex-Ray since 2018.
“You don’t do that very often,” Cash said. “He was hitting it hard but hitting it right at guys. So, good positioning by (bench coach Rodney Linares), and nice plays by (shortstop) Wander (Franco) and (second baseman Brandon) Lowe.”
What made it all work was the opportunism of the offense, turning five hits, six walks, seven steals and good overall hustle into six runs. It was just the seventh game of 52 in which the Rays didn’t hit a homer.
“You’re going to have to find ways to win ballgames without slugging every now and then,” Walls said.
What helped Thursday was a matchup with Jays right-hander Alek Manoah that was conducive to running. They stole five bases until he pitched himself out of the game after three innings, throwing only 44 of 87 pitches for strikes.
“I feel like we had something on Manoah,” Walls said. “So, we we just stuck with it and stayed aggressive. We took our opportunities when we felt like we could, and we just kept running.”
The Rays’ aggressiveness was a factor in each of their four scoring sequences.
Initially in the first inning, after Franco tripled. Arozarena singled him home, stole second, went to third when Lowe hustled to beat the throw to first on a third-strike wild pitch, and scored as Harold Ramirez busted it down the line to prevent a double play.
And most notably in the third, when the Rays got two runs without a hit, combining two walks, three steals, an errant throw and an infield out.
Different methods but a similar result, as the Rays ran their majors co-leading run total to 310.
“That’s what good offenses do, right?” Cash said. “We’ve got a really good offense. Sometimes they make it, they do it themselves. And sometimes when it’s presented, there’s an opening, it seems like we have shown the knack for really taking advantage of it.”
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