ST. PETERSBURG – A look at the dirty uniform of third baseman Taylor Walls told you all about how the Rays beat the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Thursday afternoon.
Tampa Bay is on track for more than 300 home runs this season, but the 6-3 win featured less bash and more sprint. Busyness, aggressive baserunning and a perfect 7-for-7 line in stolen bases were the recipe for success.
“You’re going to have to find ways to win ball games without occasionally fighting,” Walls said. “Today we had guys on base, we had good chances to capitalize on the things we had. The situations pretty much told us when to (run) and we trusted it and went.
Walls recorded two of those seven steals, tying a season-high Tampa Bay set on May 17 against the Mets and is one shy of the franchise record. No other MLB team has stolen more than six bases in a game this season, and the last club to gain that many bases without getting caught was the 2017 Nationals.
According to Walls, the Rays “felt like they had something” on Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah once they got on base. Although first base coach Chris Prieto’s scouting report took credit, no state secrets were revealed. Anyway, the club repeatedly took full advantage of that vulnerability, as the third inning showed.
That’s when Walls stole second base on a walk, then did a double steal with first baseman Luke Raley as the trail runner. Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk’s throw to third base was low and slid away from third baseman Matt Chapman, allowing Walls to come home while Raley gained an additional 90 feet. Manuel Margot made Toronto pay for that mistake with a shot to first base that was enough to reel in Raley and extend Tampa Bay’s lead.
“Sometimes you have to push a little bit, and I thought the guys did that,” manager Kevin Cash said. “There were a lot of heads-up baseruns. Many steals, to second place. Stealing the Walls to move into third place was huge.
Shortstop Wander Franco also stole two bags, giving him a team-high 17. After recording 10 steals in his first two seasons, Franco is on track to become the first Ray to surpass 50 stolen bases since outfielder Carl Crawford did it in 2009.
Tampa Bay leads the Majors in steals (62) and tries (78), but its brilliance in baserunning extends to specific hustle plays not found on any statistical leaderboard.
For example, after Randy Arozarena tied the score at 1-1 with an RBI single, Brandon Lowe sniffed a pitch in the mud that should have been second out of the frame. But instead of giving up, Lowe took the lead when the ball swung away from Kirk.
The bustle paid off, as the ball spun back to the first baseline. Once Kirk fielded it past the chalk, his throw to the bag was too late and Lowe was declared safe after review. Next, Harold Ramírez’s sharp grounder to second base could have been an inning-ending double play, but the ball was bobbled by Cavan Biggio and Ramírez put out the throw to first base, allowing Arozarena to come home on a fielder’s choice.
“It’s easy to assume that if you swing and miss you don’t stand a chance, but Brandon recognized it and turned it on,” said Cash. “Harold, he always does such a good job hitting the baseline.”
Going into the fourth inning, the Rays had a 5-1 lead, knocking Manoah out of the game and trailing starter Zach Eflin, who gave up six hits and two walks over seven innings. The right hand said he wasn’t feeling well when he woke up this morning, and he knew this was going to be a “grinder day” for him. While Eflin failed to strike out, his material enabled him to get 12 groundouts, including two double plays against speedy Kevin Kiermaier.
Eflin became the first Rays starting pitcher since Mark Hendrickson in 2004 to go at least seven innings without striking out.
“I think that’s pretty impressive, to go seven innings with no (strikeouts),” said Eflin. “I think that’s harder than seven innings and ten strikeouts. It was just one of those days where I prayed they would go into doubles and just get in touch early.
Next up for the Rays is a three-game series at home vs. the Dodgers, which begins Friday. The two powerhouses have not met since the 2020 World Series, when Los Angeles triumphed in six games.
Cash said he has many fond memories of that fall classic despite the loss. Arozarena turned in one of the best postseason performances in MLB history in his debut year. When asked on Wednesday what he remembers most about that magical run, he made it clear that the defeat still stings.
“What I remember is that we lost to them,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s a completely different team. I’m looking forward to this weekend. … 2020 was 2020 and it’s in the past.”