The first pitch of the ninth inning from Grant Balfour was a ball. The second pitch, too. Suddenly, what looked to be another easy day at the park for the Tampa Bay Rays was turning gloomy.
That’s what happens when you strand runners at third base in four of the first seven innings and the bullpen is thin because Joel Peralta was under the weather.
“It didn’t have a lot of great taste about it even though we were in front, because when you leave that many guys in scoring position, you know it’s going to bite you at some point,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
After Balfour walked two batters with one out to bring the winning run to the plate, Maddon put his team’s winning streak and momentum in the hands of rookie Kirby Yates. When trusted with the same situation earlier this month, Yates allowed a game-winning home run.
This time the kid came through, retiring the two batters he faced to earn his first big-league save in the Rays’ 5-3 win against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
“I knew I was better than that,” Yates said when asked if he was itching for a chance to redeem himself after blowing his first big-league save opportunity July 9 against the Royals. “(This) feels a lot better. I proved to myself I can actually do it, and it’s good. Everything is good.”
The same can be said for the Rays, who have won five straight and 14 of their past 18 games. With the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners losing Sunday, the Rays are 7½ games behind the AL East-leading Orioles and six games behind the Mariners, who hold the second American League wild-card spot.
Since June 11, the Rays are 23-11 — the best mark in the AL East — and have closed to within six games of .500.
“We won, that’s all you can ask for,” Yates said. “I got a save and everything, but winning ballgames is the key.”
Starter Chris Archer didn’t have his best slider but was able to pitch into the seventh inning and turned a two-run lead over to Brad Boxberger.
The bullpen should have had more to work with since the Rays loaded the bases with no one out in the first inning, left them loaded in the third and stranded runners at second and third in the fifth and seventh innings.
“We had so many opportunities to score many more runs, and when you keep not doing that, you get kind of concerned,” Maddon said.
James Loney put the Rays on the board with a two-run single in the first. Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar drove in the next two runs, and Evan Longoria finished the scoring with an RBI double in the sixth.
Longoria, who had two doubles, moved past Carl Crawford as the franchise leader in doubles with 216. His RBI was the 592nd of his career, which tied Crawford’s franchise record.
That two-run lead appeared to be safe after Boxberger struck out the two batters he faced.
Maddon called on Jake McGee in the eighth to face the middle of the Twins lineup with the idea that Balfour would face the bottom of the order in the ninth. McGee found himself in a battle from the start when Trevor Plouffe walked on a 12-pitch at-bat that included seven foul balls.
“It felt like he wasn’t really trying to put the ball in play, just throwing his bat out there,” McGee said. “But he did a good job. I ended up walking him.”
McGee, pitching in his third straight game, needed 29 pitches to get through the inning.
“All you’re trying to do there is put Jake on the heavy part, do the heavy lifting, and set it up for Grant a little bit,” Maddon said. “He’s just not right yet. The command is off, the walks are high, and it’s just not working.”
Balfour retired Eduardo Escobar, the Twins’ No. 7 hitter, then walked pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki and Sam Fuld.
It didn’t matter because Yates was able to clean up the mess to keep the momentum rolling as the Rays headed to St. Louis for today’s off day before the start of a quick two-game series Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I played with (Yates) for parts of two seasons in the minor leagues. Granted, it’s different hitters, it’s a whole different atmosphere, but I’ve seen him execute pitches and dominate and locate that slider and fastball, so it wasn’t a surprise,” Archer said. “But it was awesome to see him be successful in that situation.”