BALTIMORE — The Rays know what’s at stake this weekend. After spending nearly four months atop the American League East, they’ve spent the last eight weeks chasing the Orioles. These four days at Camden Yards represent Tampa Bay’s best chance to catch them.
The Rays struck the first blow Thursday night, as Luke Raley’s tiebreaking solo shot off Kyle Bradish with two outs in the seventh inning sent them to a 4-3 win over the Orioles. The victory pulled Tampa Bay within just one game of Baltimore in the AL East standings. It’s the closest the club has been to the division lead since the end of play on July 22, the day the Orioles broke a tie atop the AL East by beating the Rays at Tropicana Field.
“I mean, we know what’s on the table. We know how important this four-game series is,” said Raley, who picked an ideal time for his first homer since Aug. 24. “We’re going to do everything we can to win all four. That’s all that we can do.”
Games remaining (14): at BAL (3), vs. LAA (3), vs. TOR (3), at BOS (2), at TOR (3)
Standings update: The Orioles (91-55) hold a one-game lead over the Rays (91-57) in the AL East. Tampa Bay remains the top AL Wild Card team — the club that gets to host a best-of-three Wild Card Series against the AL’s No. 5 seed — and holds an eight-game lead over Texas (82-64), with Seattle (81-65) and Toronto (80-67) also in contention. The Rays trail in the season series with the Orioles, 6-4, and would need to sweep the series to claim the tiebreaker over Baltimore.
Magic number: 4 (for postseason clinch)
The Rays are all but officially assured a spot in the postseason at this point, but they aren’t satisfied with simply getting in for the fifth straight year. They understand the benefits of winning the AL East, getting to bypass the Wild Card round and securing home-field advantage until the World Series as the league’s top seed.
To achieve that goal, the Rays must take the division back from the Orioles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their recent postseason experience, they don’t seem to be intimidated by the moment.
“It’s fun every time we get to go out there and play,” said reliever Pete Fairbanks, who picked up his 24th save by striking out the side in the ninth. “Regardless of the stakes, to be in the position that we are in where each game matters, how could you not have fun going out there?”
Thursday’s opener was as tight and tense as you’d expect a game to play out between the AL’s top teams in mid-September, especially considering everything on the line.
“A really good baseball game, well-played from both sides,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “They hit one more solo homer than we did.”
Ryan O’Hearn put the Orioles on the board with a second-inning homer off Rays starter Aaron Civale, but Tampa Bay pulled ahead in the third on an RBI single by Brandon Lowe and a two-run triple by Randy Arozarena, fresh off a game-winning homer Wednesday afternoon in Minnesota and seemingly poised for another stretch-run showcase.
“I’m feeling good. The confidence is there. I’m a lot more locked in,” said Arozarena, speaking through interpreter Manny Navarro. The Rays’ left fielder is now hitting .341 with 43 RBIs in 47 career games against Baltimore. “Hopefully I can keep it going so that when we start the playoffs, I can be just as focused.”
The Orioles climbed back in the game, however. Gunnar Henderson went deep in the fourth, his 26th homer, then Baltimore used a pair of bunts, a walk and an Adam Frazier ground ball to score the tying run in the fifth without hitting a ball out of the infield. But Civale kept them in check, inducing a double-play grounder from Adley Rutschman to end the inning.
With Civale done after five innings, the Rays knew they could trust their bullpen to hold the line. They just needed to get the lead, and Raley delivered.
Homerless in his last 15 games, Raley launched Bradish’s 96th pitch of the night — a 3-1 slider left up in the zone — a projected 409 feet out to center field then pumped his fists as it landed near the base of the batter’s eye.
“Way too long,” Raley said of his homer drought. “Hopefully I can build off of it. It did feel good.”
Then the bullpen came through, as usual.
Relievers Colin Poche, Shawn Armstrong, Robert Stephenson and Fairbanks retired all 12 batters they faced and struck out seven of them, extending the bullpen’s streak without an earned run allowed to 34 innings, dating back to Sept. 4.
“We know how important this series is, because we want to see who’s going to be on top of the division,” Arozarena said through Navarro. “It was very good that we were able to win today’s game.”
They know what’s at stake, and now they’re one step closer.
“I don’t think we look at this as pressure right now. We’ve got to play good baseball,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think we more or less look at it like it’s a good opportunity for us.”