BALTIMORE — The Rays have been somewhat careful publicly to not put too much focus on the four-game series with the Orioles that started Thursday.
But they had been planning for more than a week how to be best prepared, well aware the series provided the most direct path for them to reclaim the American League East lead. It paid off Thursday, as they won a tense opener, 4-3, to cut the Orioles’ lead to one game.
Luke Raley delivered the biggest blast, a two-out homer in the seventh inning to put Tampa Bay ahead to stay. Randy Arozarena had a key hit for a second straight game, lacing a two-run triple in the third that put the Rays ahead 3-1. Aaron Civale gave them a solid five innings, most impressive in limiting the Orioles to one run in the fifth after loading the bases with no outs, including a misplayed popped-up bunt.
But the biggest reason the Rays won was the dominant job by their bullpen, relievers Colin Poche, Shawn Armstrong, Robert Stephenson and Pete Fairbanks setting the potent Orioles down in order — 12 up and 12 down — over the final four innings.
Just like they planned it.
“We’ve spent a lot of time the last 10-12 days talking about this series and knowing the importance of our bullpen being fresh,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Minnesota had other plans (Wednesday) that we had to use a lot of them. But those guys really, really stepped up in a big way.
“It’d be nice if we can find a way now to separate or open the game up to where we’re not counting on Stephenson, Armstrong, Poche, Fairbanks. But they know what’s at stake right now. The messages they’ve given me, and certainly more so (pitching coach Kyle Snyder), is they’re ready to go.”
That’s been the case for a while, as the bullpen extended its scoreless streak to 17-1/3 innings, and innings without an earned run to 34.
The Rays will need them as they continue their pursuit of the division lead they held (since starting the season by winning 13 straight) until late July, when, as part of a 5-15 tailspin, they lost three of four to the Orioles at Tropicana Field.
Thursday’s win improved Tampa Bay to 91-57 and got it as close to the top spot as it has been since July 22. Baltimore has lost three straight and scored just five runs total in doing so, falling to 91-55. (The Orioles lead the season series, which determines the tiebreaker, 6-4.)
“It was a good start to the series,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “It was a good, well-played game by both teams. We know how important this series is, because we want to see who’s going to be on top of the division. So, it was very good that we were able to win (Thursday’s) game.”
The Orioles tried not to see things the other way, or that they were pressing.
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”I thought we played a really good baseball game,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “We’ve just got to do a little bit better job. The opportunity we had to score (in the fifth), we only got one across. That’s been something we’ve been good at this year is to push more runs across in those kinds of situations. We just didn’t do it (Thursday).”
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead when Ryan O’Hearn homered off Civale in the second.
Denied a scoring opportunity in the second on a spectacular diving catch by centerfielder Cedric Mullins, the Rays responded with three in the third off Orioles ace Kyle Bradish. Singles by Raley, Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe produced one run before Arozarena, who feasts on the Orioles (hitting .341 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 47 games), laced a triple into the rightfield corner to make it 3-1.
“Randy, he just has a knack,” Cash said. “Some players have a knack for dialing it up, and he dials it up. Whether it’s this ballpark or any ballpark, it seems like when these big games come, he wants to be right in the middle of it and makes the most of his opportunities.”
The Orioles battled back to get even. Gunnar Henderson homered off Civale in the fourth. Then the Rays helped them to a run in the fifth. Civale allowed the first two batters on, on a bunt down third and a walk, then neither he nor catcher Christian Bethancourt made a play when Jordan Westburg popped up a bunt.
“Kind of just that perfect Bermuda Triangle,” Civale said. “Landed shortly in front of me, landed shortly in front of (Bethancourt).”
That led to the tying run on a fielder’s choice grounder to short, and while Cash said it was “frustrating” to give up a run without a ball leaving the infield, he praised Civale for staying composed and getting dangerous Adley Rutschman to hit into an inning-ending double play.
The game stayed tied until the seventh, when Raley hit hit his first homer since Aug. 24, a 409-foot, 109.9 mph shot to center that was one of his most significant.
“Waaay too long,” Raley said. “Hopefully I can build off of it. But, yeah, it did feel good.”
By the end of the night, all the Rays were feeling pretty good.
“We know what’s on the table,” Raley said. “We know how important this four-game series is. And we’re going to do everything we can to win all four. That’s all that we can do.”
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