Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash has watched his team make plenty of contributions in a division-winning season, but one key asset has been close — very close — games.
The American League East winners, who have earned the No. 1 AL seed in the postseason, finish up their three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies, and also conclude their 60-game regular season, with a Sunday matinee in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Despite an abundance of injuries — they had 12 pitchers on the injured list at one point — the Rays (39-20) have relied on strong pitching, timely offense, steady defense and a newfound running game to climb to the top of the AL.
Brandon Lowe has a team-high 14 home runs. Similarly named Nate Lowe has flashed the potential at the plate that made him a promising prospect through the system.
Randy Arozarena has seven homers in just 62 at-bats and provided punch to an offense that often sorely needed it. Newcomer Manuel Margot leads the club with 12 stolen bases.
According to Cash, one aspect that has played in Tampa Bay’s favor all year has been the ability to win close games, particularly the closest of them all — those decided by one run.
The Rays own a majors-best 14-5 record in one-run contests, including a 6-2 mark in September.
“It’s been good to be in tight ball games,” said Cash, whose team didn’t lose a home series all year. “Personally, I think they build more than a separated game. We wouldn’t be complaining if we scored more runs. But these tight games that are just really clean baseball games — you’ve got to do everything right to win them.”
Manager Joe Girardi will turn to Aaron Nola as the Phillies (28-31) close out the regular season with one of their top pitchers, though the right-hander has not been up to par lately.
Nola (5-4, 3.06) was on top of his game from Aug. 10 to Sept. 11, compiling a 5-2 record with a 2.00 ERA. He also authored a seven-inning shutout over the Miami Marlins and notched three of his double-figures strikeout games in the seven starts over the span.
But Nola has not been as good in his last two starts when his team needed it most, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) in 11 1/3 innings as the Phillies dropped games to the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.
Philadelphia has lost three of Nola’s last four starts and all three of Zack Wheeler’s final 2020 outings.
Nola admitted to some mounting frustration after his complete-game, six-inning loss in Game 1 of a doubleheader sweep by Washington on Tuesday.
“It’s always frustrating not being able to execute,” said Nola. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, we’ve still got to compete. I feel like we’ve been competing. Things haven’t fallen our way.”
Nola’s only career start against the Rays came in his MLB debut in 2015 at home. He took a hard-luck loss as Philadelphia fell 1-0 to Tampa Bay starting pitcher Nathan Karns on July 21 in a history-making game.
Karns, who recorded the win, popped the first pitch he saw from Nola leading off the third inning for a home run, also marking Karns’ first career hit.
It was the first time an AL pitcher had homered for the contest’s only run since Milt Pappas turned the trick for the Baltimore Orioles against the New York Yankees in 1962.
Nola is 0-1 against the Rays with a 1.50 from the loss.
The Rays are scheduled to send Josh Fleming (4-0, 3.42) to the mound on Sunday. It will be his seventh appearance and fifth start.
Fleming won his first three starts, going at least five innings each time. He also picked up a win in relief over the Mets in New York in his most recent appearance, allowing one run and three hits in three innings.
–Field Level Media