ST. PETERSBURG — Though the Rays are technically still alive in the race for the division title they covet, they hardly looked like a team poised for a dramatic final week finish by the end of Sunday afternoon.
A series of mistakes, most notably on the bases, by an injury-depleted lineup featuring three rookies doomed them in a 9-5 loss to the Blue Jays. And yet another key player hobbled off the field, team MVP Yandy Diaz leaving early with hamstring tightness that is said to not be too much of a concern.
“A tough loss for us,’” outfielder/DH Harold Ramirez said.
At 95-62, the Rays are 2.5 games behind the American League East-leading Orioles, who beat Cleveland on Sunday and hold the tiebreaker with a magic number of three to clinch. Plus the Rays have only five regular-season games left to make up ground.
“We’ve got to keep moving forward,” said outfielder Manuel Margot, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “We know Baltimore’s a really good team. We’ve just got to keep doing our thing.”
But that’s not that easy, as they finished Sunday’s game without Diaz, Randy Arozarena, Brandon Lowe, Jose Siri, Luke Raley and reliever Jason Adam, all injured in the last two weeks.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” said infielder Isaac Paredes, via Navarro. “We’ve lost a lot of key players. ... I think we need to just make sure these young guys are going to do a good job of making up for it.”
Realistically, the Rays will probably start to focus on prepping for the first-round Wild Card Series they were hoping to avoid by winning the AL East, as they would host a best-of-three series Oct. 3-5 against either the Jays, Astros, Rangers or Mariners.
If this weekend was a preview, the Rays will have to improve their play, at least against Toronto, losing two and needing a two-run ninth-inning rally to win Saturday after blowing a 5-0 sixth-inning lead.
The Rays grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning Sunday, when four of their first five hitters rapped singles off Jays lefty starter Yusei Kikuchi, but it didn’t last long.
Rookie starter Taj Bradley allowed five runs in the second, all after getting the first two Jays out. He was most upset with the four-pitch walk to Alejandro Kirk that started it — “Shouldn’t happen,” he said — but it got worse as a Daulton Varsho double and Whit Merrifield single led to two runs.
After ex-Ray Kevin Kiermaier singled, George Springer hit a fly ball to deep center that eluded Margot’s leap and caromed away, resulting in a three-run, inside-the-park home run and a 5-2 lead.
Margot, playing center regularly with Siri and Raley out, said he was “really close” to making the catch. The rebound, not so much.
“When it hit off the wall, I thought I read the right angle on it,” Margot said. “But when it hit the wall a certain way, it went a different rebound than I thought it was going to go.”
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The Rays had chances to get some runs back, but made a series of baserunning mistakes over the next two innings.
“We didn’t have our best day on the bases,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think we’ve been pretty good here as of late in kind of not running into outs. But (Sunday) it kind of crept up in there and probably affected us maybe in some scoring opportunities early in the ballgame.”
After Ramirez led off the third with a single, Mead laced a ball deep to rightfield but said he didn’t anticipate Springer playing the rebound that well and was thrown out on his way to second. “I guess given the situation being down it’s probably a bad mistake,” Mead said. “He played it great.”
Ramirez got to third, and with Paredes up the Rays had a play on for him to break on contact. But when Paredes lined the ball to right — where Springer made a diving catch — Ramirez didn’t go back to tag up and ended up stranded.
“I just (froze) between the bases because I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said. “When I tried to go back, he just threw the ball faster.”
The Rays got one in the fourth when Josh Lowe doubled and Taylor Walls singled with two outs, and Osleivis Basabe, another rookie who replaced Diaz, followed with a single. But with Ramirez — one of their best contact hitters — up, Basabe inexplicably wandered too far off first base and got picked off by Kirk.
“We ran the bases a little bit bad today,” Ramirez said.
A two-run seventh-inning homer by Paredes — giving him 30 for the season, plus 95 RBIs — got the Rays back within 6-5, but the Jays added on.
“There were a few mistakes we made all around the field,” Margot said.
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