MINNEAPOLIS — The four-game series that starts Thursday in Baltimore will be challenging enough, the Rays’ last chance to run down the American League East-leading Orioles on their own.
Seeing an early four-run lead get away Wednesday, coming after a tough loss Tuesday night, was only going to make it more vexing.
Then Randy Arozarena came to the rescue.
Arozarena hit a massive, career-long 448-foot homer into the third deck with two outs and two strikes in the ninth to lead to the Rays to a 5-4 victory over the Twins that provided some much needed momentum heading into the showdown series.
“This is the time of the year that you probably need your best players to perform best and Randy certainly is one of ours,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He got every bit of that ball. That ball went a long way. He picked our dugout up. At that state, after they tied it up, we were pretty frustrated in the dugout the way the game had unfolded. But Randy came up with a big hit.”
The Rays improved to 90-57 — their fourth time winning at least 90 in the last five full seasons — and moved to within 2 games of the Orioles, who lost to the Cardinals on Wednesday night.
“Everyone knows it’s a big series,” said reliever Robert Stephenson, who got the final out and his third career save. “But at the same time, you have to continue playing baseball the same way we’ve been playing all season long. And if we do that, we’re going to take care business in Baltimore.”
The Rays looked to be doing that Wednesday, jumping out to a 4-0 lead by the third. Rookie Curtis Mead, called back up Tuesday, had a hand in both rallies, with a leadoff triple and an RBI double, and Yandy Diaz had the biggest hit, a two-run double.
But rookie Taj Bradley, with an assist from lefty reliever Jake Diekman, let it get away.
Bradley started well and seemed unfazed when Matt Wallner and Kyle Farmer homered on his first two pitches in the third. “Besides that, until the fifth inning I thought he was really, really sharp,” Cash said.
Having thrown 47 pitches over the first four innings, Bradley battled with Farmer for 16 pitches before striking him out to start the fifth. And though Bradley said it wasn’t a factor, it seemed to take something out of him.
Bradley walked the next two batters (on six pitches each), threw a wild pitch that advanced the runners and sailed another that took a fortunate bounce back to catcher Christian Bethancourt. After getting Royce Lewis to ground out for the second out of the inning on his 33rd pitch, Bradley’s day was done.
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“Lost his command, kind of lost a little bit of the rhythm in his delivery where he was slipping on the mound,” Cash said. “... Just felt like it was time to see if we could get a better matchup.”
That didn’t work, as Diekman came in to face lefty Max Kepler, who laced a ball past a diving Diaz for a two-run triple and a 4-4 tie.
But that set up Arozarena, who hadn’t homered in more than two weeks, to deliver when they needed it.
“It raises the confidence a little bit,” he said, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I thought I lost it there for a little while. I’m glad I was able to connect on a pitch like that and help the team win.”
Though there will be two weeks left in the regular season after this weekend, the Rays know the results of the four games in Baltimore may well determine if they can win the division — and claim the first-round bye that comes with it. (Plus, down 6-3 in the season series they need a sweep to control the tiebreaker or otherwise they are essentially another game behind.)
“It’s going to be a good series,” Diaz said. “I think it’s going to be the make-or-break series for the season. We’re going to go out there and hopefully go with the mentality of winning all four games.”
Cash said they are well aware of the challenges presented by the Orioles, who took over first place after winning three of four games against the Rays in late July at Tropicana Field.
“I’m excited,” Cash said. “Any time you’ve got a chance to play a team that is ahead of you, and you can gain ground, that’s ultimately going to be the goal.
“They’re a very good team. They’ve done a lot of special things offensively, pitching, defense, they’ve kind of all come together really, really quick. So we’ve got plenty of challenges. I think our best thing that we can do is to go in there, try to play our style, where we pitch well, prevent runs and get some big hits.”
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