TORONTO — With nothing beyond pushing their win total closer to 100 to play for, the Rays are using the three-game regular-season-ending series in Toronto to get as prepared as possible for the best-of-three Wild Card Series that starts Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
And it quite likely will be against the same Blue Jays, who are playing for the chance to clinch their spot in the postseason.
That left the Rays with several directives to address Friday in what turned out to be an 11-4 loss.
With a rotation of Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale seemingly set for the series, they took a look at their other two starters, Zack Littell and rookie Taj Bradley, out of the bullpen.
They placed a priority on making sure their veteran players and pitchers are rested and ready, with team MVP Yandy Diaz returning to action, and going 2-for-2 with a homer, for the first time since leaving Sunday’s game with right hamstring tightness.
They wanted to give their young position players experience in a loud and frenzied atmosphere — there was a sellout crowd of 42,394 — as well as a chance to build some confidence, and they started three rookies in the infield, including Junior Caminero, who laced a 108-mph two-run single, at shortstop.
And they would like to limit the looks the Jays will got at some of their pitchers, such as taking out starter Civale after he faced only nine hitters — one time through the order — and planning to call up some fresh arms from Triple-A Durham to work bulk innings over the weekend.
“Just want to explore everything we possibly can heading into the postseason,” manager Kevin Cash said.
The Jays went into play Friday needing a win and a Mariners loss to clinch, and with the Astros and Rangers also battling for berths there is a lot of vested interest. Cash said the Rays have to do what is best for them.
“You want to be respectful of the situation, but we are going to prioritize our guys, making sure that they are as fresh and ready to go as much as possible,” he said before the game.
“That doesn’t change the way we play the game; we’ll play the game the right way. And we’re going to try to make decisions to win the game within the game. But rest will be a focal point for the three days.”
An official announcement of the rotation is expected by Sunday, but under the current plan the Rays will start Glasnow (10-7, 3.53) in the opener, hoping he is sharp, can pile up the strikeouts and work deep. That sets up Eflin (16-8, 3.50), their most consistent starter, for Game 2, and Civale if a third game is needed.
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On Friday, Civale (who threw 40 pitches to get five outs) and Littell put the Rays in an early hole, allowing four runs in the first three innings. Long reliever Erasmo Ramirez had a rough day — compounded by sloppy play from centerfielder Manuel Margot — in allowing six runs.
“(Civale was a) little bit out of rhythm,” Cash said. “They found some holes. But (he was) falling behind and kind of drove the pitch count up. We had it kind of by design that we’d like for him to go one time through the order. The same thought with Littell. But Toronto had some other plans to make them work a little bit more, and it came a little quicker — we were hoping to get a little deeper in the game.”
Civale, who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 20 and was sick in between, said he felt good, and threw another 35 pitches in the bullpen. With the potential to face the Jays again in six days, he said, “I’m going to go back and assess what I saw (Friday) and then we’ll create a game plan moving forward.”
Littell, who had been a reliever until the Rays moved him into the rotation in July, said he is ready for any role. “I think everything is kind of on the table now,” he said.
Bradley, 22, said the three relief outings he made in the low minors provided some framework if he is used out of the bullpen. Friday he allowed a run on two-out doubles by Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in working the seventh and showed off his high-end velocity, with the 14 hardest-thrown pitches of the night, topping out at 98.3 mph.
He said he was glad he got a test run before the playoffs. “It’s important just so I can get that under my feet before you get into the Wild Card, anything like that,” he said. “So I was more excited about that.”
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