CLEVELAND — The Rays were happy to get out of Cleveland on Sunday.
Even better with a win.
They didn’t have much fun here last year, losing two of three in the final week of the regular season as they fell to the final wild-card spot, then they were swept — and held to one run over 24 innings — in a two-game Wild Card Series. This weekend wasn’t much better as they blew late leads Friday and Saturday, and were saddled with frustrating losses.
All of which made Sunday’s 6-2 win — in which they let an early lead get away, then rallied to go ahead in the eighth inning — a cause for some exhalation.
“Huge,” said shortstop Taylor Walls. “They’ve had our number for the past year or two, I feel like. You never want to get swept. You always want to try to win a series. But when they took the first two, it would be huge for us to come back and get this next one, especially at this point in the season when every game matters. So, yeah, that’s big. Our pitching was big. We’ve been having good at-bats late in the game. So it was a big win for us.”
The Rays improved to 83-54, winning for the 21st time in their last 32 games since the miserable 5-15 July stretch. They completed a winning road trip by going 3-2 in Miami and Cleveland, and headed home to host the Red Sox and Mariners. And they stayed 2 1/2 games behind the American League East-leading Orioles, who won again Sunday at Arizona.
“It makes for a better flight,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t know the level of importance. We’ve put ourselves in pretty good position where we’re at. We want to keep playing good baseball. Getting a win here was nice — it’s been challenging certainly the last couple (games) this year and last year multiple times.”
Walls, who returned Friday from a month-plus absence due to an oblique strain, had an eventful day, delivering the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the eighth that scored Jose Siri while also making two errors and an off-target throw.
“Wallsy had a little bit of an uncharacteristic game,” Cash said. “But the way the game works he comes up with the biggest hit.”
The Rays took a 2-0 lead in the third on a Rene Pinto homer. The Guardians got even with runs in the third and fifth off recalled rookie starter Taj Bradley, who delivered a solid but not spectacular outing in his return from Triple A to take the fifth spot in the rotation.
The score remained tied into the eighth, as both teams had promising opportunities but failed to convert.
Siri made a dazzling play in the fifth as the Guardians, who had just tied it, still had two on and one out when Kole Calhoun lined a ball to center. Siri raced in and made a sliding catch, then threw to second to double off Josh Naylor.
“That was fun,” Siri said. “I’m like a cheetah, something like that. Find the line drive and then a sliding catch and make the double play. ... When the cheetah is hungry it’s slow, slow and then (pounce).”
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Siri was on the other side in the sixth, batting with two on and two outs and driving a ball to deep right that Ramon Laureano corralled with a running and sliding catch.
Siri started the go-ahead, two-out rally in the eighth in somewhat uncharacteristic fashion given his proclivity to strike ou. He drew a walk from Trevor Stephan after being down 1-2 in the count, then he immediately stole second.
“Try to be on base, try to focus,” he said of his mindset. “I’m fast, I can steal. ... When I’m on first base, I’m thinking we can score quickly.”
That they did, as Walls decided to look for a fastball and not bite if Stephan threw his nasty splitter, and he got what he wanted. Walls turned the 95-mph fastball into a RBI single and a 3-2 lead.
“Honestly, just tried to do my best of kind of eliminating that thought (of the splitter) out of my head and sticking to the fastball,” Walls said. “Just trying to stay relaxed and looking over the plate and being ready for it. He gave me one pretty middle, and I put a good swing on it.”
The Rays had been in a similar position the previous two nights, leading late. What set Sunday apart was their ability to hold it.
Robert Stephenson, who is moving into a setup role with Jason Adam on the injured list, worked a quick eighth. Then the Rays made things easier on themselves, tacking on three runs in their ninth. Andrew Kittredge got one out and let two on to start the ninth. Then Pete Fairbanks, who failed to close out Saturday’s game with two outs in the ninth, got the final two to seal the win.
“It’s very important,” Siri said. “(Saturday) happened. ... We need to still focus. It’s very important to win every game so we can.”
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