Rays Take Over First Place In AL East, Defeat Red Sox 9-5

(AP Photo/Scott Audette)

Mejia and Franco Highlight Rays Offense

St. Petersburg, FL – The Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Boston Red Sox 9-5 on Saturday night in front of a spirited crowd of 20,251. It was the largest regular season crowd at Tropicana Field since July 24, 2019 (also against Boston). The victory extends the Rays winning streak to three straight games and they move to 63-42 taking over sole possession of first place.

Andrew Kittredge (7-1, 1.40 ERA) picks up the win and the Rays bullpe including Kittredge deserve a lion’s share of the credit. The pen worked four scoreless innings allowing just four hits while striking out seven and walking three.

Kevin Cash had high praise for the work of his bullpen after the game. “Those guys are pretty special. They’re doing some really good things for us.” He said. “Coming into this series, Boston is going to have so many disciplined at-bats, they aren’t going to help you get ahead of guys….It seemed like all of those at-bats went to full counts but they certainly made big big pitches when they needed to. Kit [Kittredge] against [Christian] Vazquez and [Bobby] Dalbec, [Matt] Wisler falling behind Renfroe then coming back to get a big strikeout.”

Nate Eovaldi (9-6, 3.71 ERA) takes the loss for Boston who fall to 63-43. With the loss, Boston will open play Sunday without a share of first place for the first time in 34 consecutive days (6/28 – 7/31).

Francisco Mejia had a huge night going 2-for-4 with his fifth homer on the season and four RBI. Mejia has now hit safely in nine of his last 12 games at home and is batting .389 (14-for-35) with 2 HR and 9 RBI over that stretch. Overall he’s batting .385 (10-for-26) over his last eight games. While Mike Zunino gets the lions share of the time behind the plate it’s impressive that Mejia has been able to remain sharp with the bat, something he attributes to learned experience.

“I think its something I learned in my experience in San Diego and Cleveland. I wasn’t really sure of how to prepare if I didn’t start I didn’t know what kind of routine to be in.” Mejia said. “Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been told that [to be ready] and I’ve been able to prepare accordingly. You have to be ready on this team you don’t know when you may go in. So I think I’ve learned from my experiences there to help me with this team here.”

Wander Franco delivered a go-ahead triple in the sixth inning for his first ever career go-ahead RBI. Since the All-Star break Franco is batting .286 (16-for-56) with six extra base hits. He’s starting to get toasty as he’s batting .324 (12-for-37) in his last nine games.

Kevin Cash doesn’t think that Franco’s play is solely due to being comfortable. “He’s really talented, just a special player. He’s doing things that league age 20 that’s just mind boggling to me” He said. “Give Wander a lot of credit I don’t know if he’s ever hit .250 at any level for a month and he’s done it, he’s kept his head above water, and now he’s getting really hot.”

Franco showed his youthful exuberance after both his RBI single and RBI triple. After the game he explained that the emotion ws for the team. “For the team, definitely for the team. We knew we were close to first place so it was for the team.” He also exudes a mature approach to the rest of the season saying about taking over first place, “We feel good, we’re obviously very excited and happy but we have to continue to work and hopefully be better.”

From Bad To Worse For Yarbrough

To say that facing Boston at Tropicana Field was a bad matchup for Ryan Yarbrough is an understatement. Entering the game, Yarbrough had a career mark of 3-3 with a 6.79 ERA (39ER/51.2IP) in 13 career appearances (6 starts). He had gone 01- with a 14.14 ERA (11ER/7IP) in two games (1 start) against them this season. He has struggled at Tropicana Field this season pitching to a 2-3 mark with a 5.40 ERA (30ER/50IP) in 10 appearances (7 starts). His 5.40 ERA at home entering the game was the 5th-highest in the majors for pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Yarbrough was touched for five earned runs in five innings on four hits, two homers, while striking out four, walking one, and uncorking one wild pitch.

Bogaerts Blast Caps Boston’s 3-Run First:

The Red Sox jumped on Yarbrough in the first inning grabbing a 3-0 lead. Rafael Devers drew a walk, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and scored on a J.D. Martinez single. Xander Bogaerts followed with a 2-run homer to give Boston the 3-0 lead. It was Bogaerts 16th homer.

Choi’s Blast Tightens Things Up:

Tampa Bay had their work cut out for them as they came to bat trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the first against Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi was coming off a start in which he held the New York Yankees to two runs in 7.2-inning his last time out. His last start against the Rays came back on April 7th and he held them to just one run in seven innings striking out seven.

The Rays offense got busy against Eovaldi as Brandon Lowe doubled and scored on Ji-Man Choi‘s eighth homer of the season cutting the Boston lead to 3-2. It was Choi’s third homer in his last six games and fifth in his last 12 games. All eight of Choi’s homers this season have come against right handed pitchers.

“Brandon’s double and Ji-Man’s home run really made us feel a lot better.” Kevin Cash said. “It was a pretty big momentum shift when Xander [Bogaerts] comes up and hits the home run, puts them up 3-0, and for us to answer right back meant a lot for the rest of the ballgame.”

Rays Tie It Up In the Third:

Tampa Bay took advantage of a pair of errors by Boston second baseman Jonathan Arauz in the third inning to push tie the game at 3-3. With one out Brandon Lowe reached base on Arauz’s first error of the frame. Lowe moved to third on a single by Ji-Man Choi and scored on Arauz’s second error on a Nelson Cruz groundball.

Mejia’s Blast Gives Rays Lead:

Francisco Mejia delivered a 2-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning to give the Rays a 5-3 lead. It was Mejia’s fifth homer of the season who entered the game batting .364 (8-for-22) in his last eight games.

Red Sox Answer Right Back:

Heading into the fifth inning Ryan Yarbrough had retired eleven consecutive batters following the Bogaerts home run and had a 5-3 lead to protect. Christian Vazquez ended Yarbrough’s streak with a leadoff single and scored on Bobby Dalbec‘s homer. It was Dalbec’s 11th homer of the season and it tied the game at 5-5.

Red Sox Threaten But Do Not Score In Sixth:

Andrew Kittredge replaced Ryan Yarbrough and opened the sixth inning by striking out J.D. Martinez in a 10-pitch battle. He then walked Xander Bogaerts, allowed a double to Hunter Renfroe, and intentionally walked Alex Verdugo to load the bases. Kittredge fell behind Christian Vazquez 3-0 but came back to strike him out for the second out. Kittredge struck out Bobby Dalbec on three pitchers to end the threat and keep the game tied at 5-5.

Franco Gives Rays Lead:

Eovaldi remained in the game to open the seventh inning and struck out Randy Arozarena for the first out before walking Joey Wendle. Wander Franco followed with an 8-pitch plate appearance culminating with an RBI triple to put the Rays ahead 6-5.

It was a great at-bat by Franco who fell behind in the count 0-2. “Eovaldi’s tough, that last at-bat there that ended his night was just another one of those at-bats you kind of marvel at with a 20 year going and doing that,” Cash said. “Hanging in there getting it to 3-2 and then rifling a ball right down the line.: 

The triple ended Eovaldi’s night as Josh Taylor entered the game. Taylor struckout Kevin Kiermaier and retired Francisco Mejia on a groundout to keep Franco stranded at 3rd base.

Red Sox Miss Another Opportunity, Springs Injured:

Jeffrey Springs replaced Andrew Kittredge to open the seventh inning. After striking out Jonathan Araiz, Springs allowed a single to Kike Hernandez. Rafael Devers followed with a bunt against the shift that Springs fielded, but in the process stumbled and injured his right knee. He walked off the field under his own power and was replaced by Matt Wisler.

There was no update on Springs after the game, just that he’s still getting checked out by doctors. “He felt his knee kind of buckle on the outside.” Cash said. “We’ll probably have more to look at, hopefully it’s not too bad of an injury but it was pretty scary in the moment when you see him go down and the pain he was in then he kind of got up and gingerly but it was encouraging at least to see him get up and walk off on his own.” Cash added that it was “highly likely’ that Springs is headed to the injured list. 

J.D. Martinez grounded out to first moving both runners into scoring position with two outs for Xander Bogaerts. When Wisler fell behind 3-0 to Bogaerts the decision was made to intentionally walk him to load the bases. Wisler was up to the task and struck out Hunter Renfore to strand the bases loaded and keep the Ray lead intact.

Franco Adds To Lead With 2nd RBI:

Austin Meadows led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a double and was replaced by pinch-runner Brett Phillips. Randy Arozarena was hit by a pitch and Joey Wendle struckout. Wander Franco came through with an RBI single to extend the Rays lead to 7-5. Franco’s RBI single ended the night of Adam Ottavino. Austin Davis came in to replace Ottavino and struck out Kevin Kiermaier. Francisco Mejia followed with an 2-RBI single scoring both Arozarena and Franco to extend the lead to 9-5.

Mejia ended the night with 4-RBI, it was his third game with the Rays this season with four or more RBI. He had four RBI onn May 21st vs Toronto and a season high 5 RBI against the Baltimore Orioles on July 20th.

Up Next – Sunday Night Baseball:

AP Photo: Chris O’Meara

The Rays and Red Sox will conclude their three game series with a National TV game on ESPN on Sunday night at 7:08 p.m. Shane McClanahan (4-4, 3.93 ERA) will take the ball for Tampa Bay. The Red Sox counter with Nick Pivetta (8-4, 4.51 ERA).