The Tampa Bay Rays were on the third night of a six-game road trip, the inevitable downfall after the team’s first-round playoff demise. In the rain-shortened seventh inning on Wednesday night, they entered the ninth tied with a surging Toronto Blue Jays team. Unsurprisingly, the Rays — who had staked the Jays to a 6-0 lead on an inauspicious summer night on July 31 — were the club in trouble. But a 10-minute rain delay before the bottom of the ninth removed that danger.
Once play resumed, relief pitcher Cesar Ramos started it off for the Rays in a non-explosive fashion. The first out in the ninth was struck by Josh Donaldson on a soft grounder to second base. Adeiny Hechavarria made an equally reasonable play by corralling the ball and tagging Jose Bautista to end the threat. Then Joe Maddon yanked Ramos after giving up a single to Kendrys Morales and a walk to Justin Smoak.
As the leadoff batter for the Jays, Morales flicked a soft line drive to first baseman Luke Maile, who relayed the ball to Asdrubal Cabrera at second, making his first start since the Aug. 12 trade with the Cleveland Indians. Cabrera’s throw to Maile was off-target and bobbled for an error, and he was charged with an error. The fifth out, a forceout at second, followed, and Stroman replaced Ramos.
Stroman, who had given up a combined six runs on eight hits over his previous three starts, threw four walks to bring the Rays to the cusp of the tying run before Longoria finally found some success with a three-run double to right field. Stroman seemed particularly rattled afterward, showing tremendous emotion on the mound and the plate. That’s just part of the reason the rookie righthander has had such a miserable first season. He’s tossed the most games in the majors, but they’ve been against just 18 teams, and he’s allowed the most homers.
But if Stroman was even a notch below average on Wednesday night, he was the best the Rays had managed. The Jays threatened, as did the Rays, but neither came close to stringing together a big inning. Instead, the game was decided by Tampa Bay’s ability to adjust to a new and disappointing rule.
Games in the second-half postseason are played under a new wild-card system, in which the top wild-card team in each league hosts the wild-card winner. All of the top five teams in the wild-card standings were in the playoffs, which had some added impact as two of the first four games were played in Tampa. Since there was no extra wild-card game this year, Wednesday night’s game needed to be determined by a tiebreaker between the teams at the top of the division, though the mere fact of playing in the wild-card game was more important to the Rays. This left the bottom wild-card team on the road to Toronto.
The Rays’ insistence on this was simple: There’s a smaller house of cards in the AL East than there is in the National League. As usual, there was no clear favorite. By playing Wednesday’s game, the team now in that spot finished the season 5.5 games ahead of the team that could finish second in its division, which the Rays trailed by 1.5 games on Sept. 30. Any team with a realistic chance to win the division had to play, and this was the one that had the least amount of stress.
The Rays lucked out, and it came with all the iron of a car-phone charger. Stroman, whose overpitched in the Jays’ playoff win over the Red Sox last year, appeared calm on the mound after the rain delay and kept his team in the game. But ultimately the Rays dominated, going on to win the game 8-5.