ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have done well, especially given a slew of injuries, to this point. With Wednesday’s 5-4 win over the Marlins, they improved their record to 26-17, moving to a season-best nine games over .500 and on pace for 98 wins.
Now, they move on to the first round of what may be the main event of their season, playing the first four of 19 games against the Yankees, who to this point have been the beasts of the American League East, posting a majors-best 31-13 record and holding a 4½-game division lead.
“They’ve been off to a great start,” said Rays lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who starts Thursday’s series opener. “Obviously, a great team, added some great pieces.
“So we understand what we’re going to get into. It’s always a battle with them, especially these last couple years. Everyone in the division improved, so it’s going to be a dogfight. We’re looking forward to it.”
Wednesday, the Rays got off to a great start, scoring five in the first, their most prolific opening frame in a year (since May 24, 2021), and looked to be in good shape with Drew Rasmussen on the mound.
Kevin Kiermaier got them started again with a leadoff walk. Wander Franco, who had two hits in his last 40 at-bats, rapped the first of two doubles. Yandy Diaz, who returned to the lineup, walked; Randy Arozarena, who took batting practice during the afternoon with soccer-playing younger brother Raiko, the Rowdies’ goalkeeper, laced a two-run double. And Harold Ramirez, homerless until this series, went deep for the second straight night against his former team.
“That happened, but I really just enjoy it because we’re winning and I’m doing my job,” Ramirez said. “Yeah, it’s very fun. I know a lot of guys text me and say, ‘Hey, your ex-team,’ and everything.”
The Rays needed every bit of that lead.
Rasmussen, who allowed more than two runs only once in his first eight starts, allowed three in a messy fourth — and quickly — on a Jorge Soler homer, two singles and then a two-run double by Jacob Stallings, an 11-pitch span.
Rasmussen said he was still frustrated by allowing two walks in the second, and let it carry over, which led to him lasting only five innings.
“I told (pitching coach Kyle Snyder), I was soft in that (fourth) inning,” Rasmussen said. “It’s just one of those things, just a little bit of toughness and wiping the slate clean. It’s a new inning, right? Nothing ended up happening in the second inning, and so to allow that frustration to kind of roll over into the (fourth) inning — mentally, it’s just soft.”
There was more drama.
In the eighth, when a Soler drive down the leftfield line was reviewed on replay to see if it was a home run or a foul ball. (It was foul.)
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And more so in the ninth, when Colin Poche allowed a leadoff single and, with one out, Taylor Walls and Franco made throwing errors on back-to-back plays. That got one run in, then Poche walked Garrett Cooper to load the bases before striking out Jesus Aguilar on four straight fastballs of increasing velocity to end it and get his first save of the season.
“Colin really stepped up in a big way,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We put all kinds of pressure on him. He just kept throwing strikes, stayed within himself and picked us up in a big way. Going into that inning, the five runs (in the first) was probably the highlight. But Colin’s effort certainly changed that.”
Poche, who missed all of 2020 and 2021 recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, said he appreciated Cash’s trust and was glad he came though, given the excellent bullpen work before him.
“It was just really staying focused in in the moment and just trying to keep making pitches no matter what, try to stay in the strike zone,” Poche said. “I walked (Miguel) Rojas to load the bases, so my margin for error kind of went down, and I really needed to buckle down and make some pitches.”
The Rays and Yankees will start seeing plenty of each other soon enough, with six games in a nine-day stretch in mid-June, a three-game series in August, then six in a 10-day span in September. But first things first, starting Thursday.
“It’s always a fun series with those guys,” Rasmussen said. “They’re playing really good baseball right now and they have been for the entire year, and so it’ll be a good test for us. I think we’re a really talented team with a lot of upside, and so I’m really excited for them to come to town.”
Said Franco, via team interpreter Manny Navarro: “We know it’s the Yankees.”
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