With just 12 games left in the regular season, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash believes his team’s speed could have a big impact in winning the division and advancing in the playoffs.
The Rays (31-17) conclude their quick two-game series against the Washington Nationals (17-29) on Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
And if the matinee turns out anything like the series opener — a 6-1 win by the Rays — the club’s fleet feet will be on display again.
Five different players stole bases as the Rays swiped five bags — the most by the team in two years — as they improved to 23-10 against right-handed starting pitching.
In the first 28 games this season, the club stole just 10 bases. But Rays baserunners have snagged 27 bases over the last 20 contests.
“We kind of recognized some things facing (Washington starter Anibal) Sanchez the other day that there might be some opportunities,” said Cash, whose group stole four bases against the right-hander — most without a throw down to second.
“We had to get on base first, and the guys did. They were ready to go,” the sixth-year Rays manager said.
Leading the way is first-year Rays outfielder Manuel Margot, who had a two-hit night and stole a bag. The former San Diego Padre is 12-for-14 in stolen base attempts in his first season with the first-place team, which holds a four-game lead over the New York Yankees in the American League East.
“I think our speed is going to be a big factor (in the postseason),” Cash said. “It’s more speed than we’ve had in the past and that might play a pretty big role for us.”
The Rays used the “opener” strategy — where a reliever starts the game on the mound with a starting pitcher following — for the fourth time Tuesday and improved to 4-0 this season after going 26-17 utilizing it last year. They will turn to it again Wednesday with Peter Fairbanks (4-3, 3.00 ERA) opening the game and left-hander Josh Fleming (3-0, 4.12) following him.
Fairbanks, who took both losses in the four-game home split with Boston over the weekend, will be making his first career appearance against the Nationals.
Washington reliever Aaron Barrett made his 2020 debut in Tuesday’s loss with 1 2/3 innings of two-hit, scoreless relief after being recalled from the alternate training site to replace Tanner Rainey.
Barrett’s return to baseball is an amazing story.
In 2016 during a rehab assignment in Florida, the right-hander’s arm essentially snapped in half during a pitch, making a loud breaking noise that forced one teammate to become sick in the dugout. He was given very little chance of pitching again.
But after Tommy John surgery he returned to pitch for the Nationals last September in three regular-season appearances as Washington went on to win the World Series.
“It’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?” Barrett said to the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press. “It’s a similar story. I was told I would never throw a baseball again. They estimated that the Nationals had a 1 percent chance of winning the pennant. The guys in the clubhouse never stopped believing.”
Washington will send out Austin Voth (0-5, 7.99) for his ninth start of the season and first ever appearance against Tampa Bay.
The right-hander hasn’t turned in a strong outing since his second start this year on Aug. 8 when he held the Baltimore Orioles to one hit over five scoreless innings in a 5-3 loss in Washington.
In his last outing on Thursday against the Atlanta Braves, Voth yielded three runs on a pair of hits with four strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings pitched.