BOSTON — Though they lost another step in the all-but-officially-over race for the American League East title as the front-running Orioles won again, the Rays gained in several other areas with Tuesday’s 9-7 win over the Red Sox.
Jonathan Aranda rapped three hits to lead a group of first- and second-year players who were in the lineup in hopes they can get on a roll, given the potentially key roles they may have in the playoffs for the injury depleted Rays.
Closer Pete Fairbanks rebounded from back-to-back rough outings, and navigated mid-50s temperatures with no issues from his previous cold-weather circulation problems, to strike out the side in the ninth inning and record his 25th save.
And Zach Eflin looked very much ready to be the Game 1 playoffs starter, most likely on Tuesday in the Wild Card Series opener at Tropicana Field, in working five innings and overcoming a small blister issue, to earn his AL-leading 16th win.
“It was a great, great day,” Eflin said.
The Rays improved to 96-62, matching the third-most wins in franchise history, but moved to the brink of elimination in the division race as the Orioles reduced their magic number to two.
How they got there was interesting.
Several of the young hitters, plus veteran Manuel Margot, who had a four-hit night, helped build a 7-0 lead by the third, but Eflin made one bad pitch that led to three runs, and relievers Kevin Kelly and Colin Poche allowed the Sox within 7-6 before the Rays rallied for more.
Manager Kevin Cash said over the weekend they needed Aranda to get going, likely to fill the void of injuries to two of their productive lefty hitters, Brandon Lowe and Luke Raley, in the postseason.
Aranda, a 25-year-old who has starred at Triple-A but hasn’t done much over parts of two seasons in the majors, has been working on his timing and other adjustments, and it looked to pay off Tuesday, as he had two singles and a double, scoring one run and knocking in another.
“Shout out to Johnny Aranda,” Fairbanks said. “That was hopefully a breakout for him, to hit the ball and to get some breaks and find some holes. After he was struggling for a little while, I thought that was huge for us.”
Said Aranda, via team interpreter Manny Navarro: “I gained a lot of confidence.”
Aranda had help. Curtis Mead had two hits and 20-year-old top prospect Junior Caminero laced a ball 105.9 mph and high off the centerfield wall for an RBI double. Two second-year players who will be on the postseason roster also contributed, as catcher Rene Pinto delivered a two-run home run and outfielder Josh Lowe had two hits and threw a runner out at third.
They made Cash’s decision to give veterans Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz another day off to deal with leg muscle issues, and to not start Harold Ramirez, look good. And provided encouragement for the playoffs.
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“Aranda, he needed to feel good, and that’s kind of what we were talking about before the game, so good for him,” Cash said. “We want all those guys to feel good, and (Tuesday) was a step in that direction.”
Fairbanks said he was most concerned with making a mechanical adjustment with his foot placement after failing to retire any of the four batters he faced Saturday (three walks and a hit batter), his second straight blown save.
But two important byproducts Tuesday were his round-number save, and his ability to pitch with no issues, and well, in the chilly air. Due to Raynaud’s Syndrome, he had issues in last year’s playoffs and this April.
“So far my contingencies worked,” he said. “And if those fail to work, then I will be experimenting with new ones as we go. But I was pleased with the guys who are helping me figure this out, and pleased to have a lot of blood in my fingers (Tuesday).”
Eflin was mad about allowing a homer to No. 8 hitter Enmanuel Valdez after two singles to open the fifth, which bumped his ERA to 3.50, but pleased overall with his night, and his body of work in his first season with the Rays. “It’s just been awesome,” he said.
And he said he is not concerned about the small blister on the tip of his right index finger that required Dermabond adhesive to be applied before the fifth, and said it had no connection to the hits he allowed.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
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