One of the only teams in all of Major League Baseball that’s been hotter than the Oakland Athletics over the past two months is the Tampa Bay Rays.
Over the month of September, Tampa Bay is 10-3, and since the start of August, they’re 27-13.
On Sunday, those Rays took the rubber game from the A’s with a 5-4 victory, handing Florida native Mike Fiers his first loss since being acquired by Oakland in early August.
After Jed Lowrie bobbled what could have been an inning-ending double play ball in the bottom of the first, forcing the A’s to settle for one out, C.J. Cron belted a long two-run homer to left. Fiers also gave up a solo homer in the fourth to Rays rookie Willy Adames, the prized piece of the trade that sent David Price to the Detroit Tigers and one of Tampa’s top prospects.
Fiers allowed just three runs but needed 80 pitches to get through four innings, allowing four hits and walking three. He allowed the Rays to load the bases to start the bottom of the second, but Matt Olson turned a double play on a Jesus Sucre liner.
Though Mallex Smith walked to reload the bases, Fiers got Matt Duffy to ground out to end the inning. Tampa Bay (82-66) added on two more in the seventh on Brandon Lowe’s two-run triple off Emilio Pagan.
As good as the A’s bullpen has been throughout the year, the Rays have had excellent relief pitching as well, especially since adopting the opener strategy in mid-May.
Since first experimenting with the opener on May 19, they have the best ERA in the American League. On Sunday, they used eight different pitchers and kept Oakland (90-60) off the board until the ninth. Opener Diego Castillo pitched a perfect first, and Andrew Kittredge pitched the next two, allowing just a walk to Matt Olson and quickly erasing him on a Stephen Piscotty double play.
Kittredge was the winning pitcher for a second consecutive day. Hunter Wood allowed the A’s first hit — a fifth-inning single to Olson — but got through two scoreless innings of his own, and Jaime Schultz was spotless in the sixth and seventh. Adam Kolarek took care of the eighth, allowing a leadoff single to Olson but erasing him on another Piscotty double play — a twin killing that was especially significant as Ramon Laureano followed with a double.
The A’s did finally make some noise in the ninth, with Jake Faria walking the bases loaded, but hard-throwing lefty Jose Alvarado came in and struck out Lowrie — who now sits with just four hits in his last 30 at-bats.
Sergio Romo was called on to close the game out, and though he did give up a homer for the second straight day– a Khris Davis grand slam that cut the Rays’ lead to a run — he then struck out Olson, becoming the only Rays pitcher to retire the Oakland first baseman. Piscotty flew out harmlessly to center to end the game.
Davis’s home run was his 43rd, giving him a two-homer cushion for the league lead
Though the A’s have put up excellent results against the AL East this year, they did lose five of seven to the up-and-coming Rays. They still maintain a seven-game lead over Tampa Bay in the Wild Card race, but are a game-and-a-half behind the New York Yankees for home field, failing to make up ground as the Yankees lost a second straight game to the Toronto Blue Jays.