BALTIMORE — After all the good the Rays did over the first three months of the season, they spent the last eight weeks looking up at the Orioles perched atop the American League East.
Friday, they got even.
The Rays beat the Orioles for a second straight night, the 7-1 win before a roaring sellout crowd of 43,359 moving them into a virtual tie for first place.
Zach Eflin delivered the dominant start they needed, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowing only one hit over seven, and Harold Ramirez’s pinch-hit, three-run homer and emphatic bat flip highlighted a strong offensive showing.
“It’s nice to come into a division leader and take the first two and tie it up and see what happens in the next couple of games and the rest of the season,” Eflin said. “This is what you play for. This is so much fun to go out there and have a packed stadium and to be able to get a W in the win column. So we just had a lot of fun (Friday).”
Boosted by a 13-0 start, the Rays held first place from opening day until late July, leading by as many as 6½ games as late as July 1. But they lost their spot when, as part of a 5-15 skid, they dropped three of four to the Orioles. They last held a share of the lead on July 21 before dropping back and were four out as recently as Sept. 9.
Now, the teams essentially are tied with two weeks left to play in the regular season, though the Orioles, at 91-56, still have an edge over the Rays (92-57).
Baltimore, which has played two fewer games, is percentage points ahead, .619 to .617. Of greater importance, it still leads the season series, which determines the tiebreaker, 6-5. So unless Tampa Bay sweeps this series, the Orioles would basically have an additional game edge.
“We’ve got work to do,” manager Kevin Cash said.
But the Rays do have the momentum, having won three straight, seven of their last eight and nine of 11. They they also are on the verge of clinching a fifth straight postseason berth.
“I feel like the confidence is going up a lot,” Ramirez said.
The Orioles have lost four straight games, scoring just six runs total, and five of six.
Manager Brandon Hyde said it wasn’t the pressures of being in a race. “I don’t think because of the situation,” he said. “I think that we’re just in a little bit of a team funk offensively. But I think you give Zach Eflin a ton of credit, honestly. I thought he was excellent, and he gave us a tough time.”
Eflin certainly set the proper tone in the frenzied atmosphere and earned his American League-leading 15th win as a reward.
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“The stoic starter that we needed,” said Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe.
After Orioles leadoff man Gunnar Henderson reached on an error by third baseman Isaac Paredes, Eflin set down the next 14 batters in order, including a double-play grounder to erase Henderson. Then, after allowing a homer to just-called-up rookie Heston Kjerstad to open the sixth, Eflin set down six more to work an impressive seven innings on 84 pitches, walking none and striking out eight.
“He was pretty outstanding,” Cash said. “Came up big. He’s come up big for us all season long. To date, you could probably make the case this is the biggest game of the year for us. He had certainly the right mentality, the approach, the efficiency, the willingness to just kind of attack.”
“I’ve been dying for an outing like that,” Eflin said. “Just to be able to have command and feel for all the pitches and stuff and to be able to go north, south, east and west on hitters. I thought (catcher Rene) Pinto did a great job (Friday) calling the game. Played great defense. Got out to an early lead, so I was able to attack guys and kind of really just throw every pitch, keep them guessing. So it was a fun night.”
The hitters felt that way as well, knocking out starter Jack Flaherty, the Orioles’ trade-deadline pick-up, in the fifth.
Brandon Lowe got the Rays started in the fourth by hitting his 20th homer, giving them five hitters with 20 or more for the first time in franchise history. A double by Randy Arozarena, who had a three-hit night, and a single by Manuel Margot, who had three hits in his first game since Aug. 16 elbow surgery, made it 2-0. Tampa Bay added a run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly by Lowe.
After doubles by Josh Lowe and Margot made it 4-0 to start the sixth, Ramirez provided the signature moment.
Left-hander DL Hall was on the mound when Ramirez was sent up to pinch-hit with two on. The O’s switched to righty Bryan Baker, but Ramirez didn’t flinch, driving the first pitch 419 feet over the left-centerfield wall at 112.5 mph, the hardest-hit homer of his career. He also improved to a remarkable 10-for-18 as a pinch-hitter.
“I just feel very excited,” Ramirez said. “I was looking for that fastball, and he threw it and I took advantage and made good contact, and I know that ball is going to to go.”
He watched it as he took a few steps toward first, then showed his excitement by tossing his bat high and end over end.
” I just enjoyed it a lot, because I know I got that ball pretty good,” Ramirez said. “So I just felt very happy.”
His teammates enjoyed the show.
“That was freaking awesome,” Brandon Lowe said. “You do that, you can bat flip however you like.”
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