Jose Siri, Christian Bethancourt homer as Rays beat Rangers

Adam Berry

By Adam Berry

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays took care of business on Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, pulling off a 5-3 win over the Rangers and winning the weekend series after dropping two straight in New York and Toronto.

Now come the Astros, who have been the class of the American League so far this season and have a chance to clinch their fifth AL West title in the past six years over the next three days at The Trop.

“Their record speaks for itself,” said Drew Rasmussen, who will start Monday’s series opener. “They’ve really taken care of business to this point, and it’s a quality team put together on the pitching side, defensively and offensively.”

The Rays haven’t seen the Astros at all this season “other than on highlights,” as manager Kevin Cash noted Sunday. But they’re about to see a lot of them, with six of their next 13 games coming against Houston. During that stretch, Tampa Bay will play nothing but postseason contenders: the Astros, Blue Jays and Guardians.

That’s just fine with the Rays, who are a half-game behind the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card standings with a 5 1/2-game cushion (and the tiebreaker) over the Orioles for a spot in the postseason. They welcome the challenge.

“We knew what September looked like. We saw the schedule early on, and those teams always play well,” said starter Jeffrey Springs, who allowed three runs (two earned) over 5 2/3 innings to win Sunday’s series finale. “It’s going to be good baseball, but it’s what you want to play for in September. You want to play the best. The Astros are good every year, Toronto is doing it, and it should be pretty fun.”

It’s worth noting that the Rays (82-64), who clinched their fifth straight winning season and the 11th in franchise history with Sunday’s victory, are just 37-39 against teams currently with a .500 record or better, compared to 45-25 against teams with losing records. But they have shown some encouraging signs lately.

Tampa Bay has won three of its past four games, improving to 28-16 since the start of August. The only AL team with a better record during that stretch? The Astros, naturally.

“I think it’s going to be fun. I think we’re going to have to compete,” center fielder Jose Siri, a former Astro, said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “They’re a good team, but I think we’re a good team, too. I think we’ve got to go in there and stay focused and concentrate like we have been and continue doing what we’ve been doing.”

What the Rays have been doing lately is getting contributions from everywhere in the lineup while scoring 24 runs over the past four games. On Sunday, Christian Bethancourt and Siri launched back-to-back homers in the second inning, Jonathan Aranda and Manuel Margot drove in a run each in the third and Taylor Walls drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth.

“We’re in the last stretch of the season, and hopefully in October, we can carry that momentum and have a well-balanced lineup,” Bethancourt said. “That’s something I’ve never experienced before, and it’s just an amazing feeling to be on the field, part of the team that every pitch, every game, every at-bat matters from now on until hopefully the World Series.”

The Rays are also pitching well, as usual, leaning heavily on a bullpen that has allowed just one run over the past 20 innings. Javy Guerra, Brooks Raley, Colin Poche and Pete Fairbanks struck out seven of the 10 batters they faced, retiring them all to finish Sunday’s game. Fairbanks has been particularly electric, with 19 straight scoreless appearances and no extra-base hits allowed since July 17.

“They’re very efficient. They’ve been on a good run,” Cash said. “They know that. They feed off each other.”

Now they’ll be tested by the Astros, who come to town with the AL’s third-highest-scoring offense and the Majors’ second-lowest ERA. The Astros will send Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr. to the mound, and the Rays will counter with Rasmussen, Shane McClanahan and Corey Kluber.

Bethancourt said the Rays’ last series in Toronto felt like playoff baseball to him. Starting Monday, the rest of the season should be no different.

“Well, we’re going to know exactly where we stand, and we’re going to know a lot about them going into the postseason,” Rasmussen said. “You’ve got to beat good teams to get in, and then you’ve got to beat good teams to win.”

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