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Rays hot summer continues, beat Astros to crack .500

Mallex Smith

Break up the Tampa Bay Rays!

Sunday’s 3-2 squeaker of a win over the defending World Series champion Houston Astros gave the Rays nine wins in their last 11 games. It also lifted Tampa Bay over .500 for the first time since May 31, when they were 28-27.

“We’ve been playing close games against really good teams all year,” said Rays third baseman Matt Duffy, who delivered one of Sunday’s key moments. “We’ve come out on the wrong end of a lot of one-run games and part of that is bad luck and a lot of it is us not playing clean games in a lot of those close ballgames. Over this homestand I feel like we’ve played a lot clean games. That’s the difference right there.”

In addition to improving to 42-41 on the year, the Rays improved to 16-20 in one-run games, took three of four over Houston and went 8-1 on this nine-game homestand.

Despite failing to finish with a .500 or better record since the team’s last postseason appearance in 2013, this is actually the third time in the last four years Tampa Bay owns a winning mark on July 1. The Rays haven’t been rudderless over that span, though, finishing 80-82 in 2015 and 2017.

Starting pitchers Blake Snell (Rays) and Charlie Morton (Astros) dominated the afternoon Sunday. The pair combined for 21 strikeouts and kept both teams’ offenses off the board until the seventh.

Runs were at a premium and it was Snell who blinked first. The Rays’ 25-year-old emerging star surrendered a leadoff home run to Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis that broke the scoreless tie.

“[Blake] kind of went toe to toe there with Morton. They were both just outstanding,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It didn’t seem like either one was going to falter and then Gattis comes up and hits a big home run. But we find a way to answer back. We’ve done that here a lot lately, it’s been nice to watch, but any time you get starting pitching, opening pitching, whatever, like we’ve been getting, we’re going to stay in ballgames.”

The Rays entered the home half of the seventh with four hits, two walks and a hit batter against Morton, but none of those baserunners managed to touch home. That changed when Astros manager A.J. Hinch yanked Morton with runners at first and second and two outs.

Rays third baseman Matt Duffy didn’t get much of reliever Chris Devenski’s 2-2 changeup but he got enough. His shallow flyball to right landed just inside the line and in front of a charging Josh Reddick. Since there were two outs, Adeiny Hechavarria and Joey Wendle were running on contact. The combination of hangtime, the ball getting down and defensive sloppiness allowed both baserunners to score and give Tampa Bay the 2-1 lead.

Snell was at just 83 pitches through seven innings and Cash ran 2018’s ace back out to start the eighth. Snell got Max Stassi looking to open the frame and then got Jake Marisnick to chase a pitch in the dirt for strike three. That 10th punch-out didn’t result in an out, however, as the ball got by catcher Wilson Ramos and Marisnick raced to first.

That was the beginning of the end for Snell. A single by Tony Kemp and a walk by Alex Bregman loaded the bases with one out and ended Snell’s day.

Cash went to Diego Castillo. The rookie inherited three baserunners and immediately had to face one of the game’s best hitters, Jose Altuve. After falling behind 1-2, Altuve fouled off four pitches to work the count full, but Castillo’s 10th pitch of the at bat was too much to handle. Castillo went low and away out of the zone and got Altuve to chase. The inning ended when Yuli Gurriel sent a grounder to short and rookie first baseman Jake Bauers scooped Hechavarria’s throw in the dirt.

Mallex Smith – joining Snell, Duffy and Castillo as stars of the day – padded Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-1 with two outs in the eighth by sending his first home run of the season over the right-center field wall. The four-bagger was one of two hits on the day for Smith and came three innings after a big, run-saving catch. Marisnick drove a two-out pitch toward the cutout in left-center that would have scored Stassi from first had it not been for Smith tracking it down and then climbing the wall for some extra style points at the end.

“It was a tremendous catch,” Cash said. “Off the bat I thought double, triple for sure, and obviously a run. But we know Mallex can cover ground and he picked us up in a really big way, offensively and defensively. The home run, the separator right there to give us a little breathing room there in the eighth, was big.”

It didn’t take long to realize the importance of Smith’s solo home run. Sergio Romo came in to close out the ninth and his first offering to Gattis ended up in the left-field seats. Romo then walked Tyler White but got Reddick to shoot a grounder up the middle right at Hechavarria, shifted behind second base. Hechavarria stepped on second and threw to first for the 6-3 double play. Romo escaped with his eighth save by getting Marwin Gonzalez to ground out to Daniel Robertson at second.

Snell improved to 11-4 on the year and lowered his ERA to 2.24. His 123 strikeouts rank eighth in the American League.

“I liked my changeup, but then the curveball came into play later on,” Snell said when asked to assess his performance. “I liked how I mixed it up. I stayed away a lot because I felt like a lot of them were sitting on fastballs. Gattis, he hit a fastball away, but he was hunting it. I could tell he was going away because I didn’t go in. The changeup was really good today. It got a lot of early swings, a lot of groundouts and I was happy with it.”

The Rays get back at it tomorrow night in Miami. Monday’s 7:10 p.m. start begins a six-game road trip that includes three against the Marlins and three more against the New York Mets.

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