Tampa Bay Rays’ Mallex Smith drops down a sacrifice bunt off Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ during the fifth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 13, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Rays’ Johnny Field advanced to second base. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Matt Duffy’s ninth-inning hit lifts Rays over Blue Jays

Rays 1 Blue Jays 0

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — While it’s unclear how the rookie-laden Rays will emerge from the daunting 16-game stretch upon them, we do know how they’ll enter it.

With a surge of momentum.

Matt Duffy’s two-out single in the bottom of the ninth scored Mallex Smith from third base, lifting the Rays (32-35) to a 1-0 victory Wednesday against Toronto (30-38) before a Tropicana Field matinee audience of 10,847.

The Rays, winners of three in a row, were set to fly out later in the day for New York, where on Thursday they begin a 16-game stretch in which they’ll play the Yankees (seven games), Astros (seven) and Nationals (two).

Preceding that grind was a dose of grit. Duffy, hitless in four prior at-bats, smacked an 0-1 pitch from Ryan Tapera through the hole at shortstop, scoring Smith, who had doubled two batters earlier.

It was only Tampa Bay’s fifth hit of the afternoon.

“My approach was just try to get something over the middle of the plate, so of course I take the fastball down the middle and swing at the one under my hands,” Duffy said.

“But … in my mind, once Mallex got to third there I just thought, ‘OK, really make sure you get out of the box extra hard here in case it’s a ground ball that a guy does happen to get to or make a diving play on. I just wanted to give myself the best chance possible to beat it out if it’s an infield hit and still win the game.”

That game-winner still didn’t completely overshadow a second consecutive sparkling effort by the Rays’ pitching committee. In the final two games of this series, nine Rays pitchers combined to allow one Toronto run.

“Opening, starting, whatever you want to call it, but they’re really providing a lot for us at this point,” manager Kevin Cash said.

“To be able to shut a team down for nine innings is very, very challenging to do in this league and they did it. They pieced it together really well, and then Duffy comes up and gets a big hit.”

On Wednesday, three Rays pitchers combined for a five-hitter, with rookie RHP Diego Castillo getting his first big-league win in his fourth appearance. Castillo worked the final two innings, striking out two and allowing one hit.

“I really feel confident here,” he said. “We all do.”

Before that, opener Wilmer Font rallied from a shaky 28-pitch first inning to deliver 3 1/3 scoreless innings. Matt Andriese followed with 3 2/3 more scoreless innings.

“That’s two days in a row now where the bullpen really came in and picked us up in a big way,” Cash said. “We won the last two ball games because of their performance.”

That dazzling ensemble effort wasn’t confined to the mound.

Two early errors belied the fact this may have been one of the Rays’ better defensive efforts. Rookie SS Willy Adames, playing on a shift, stabbed a Justin Smoak grounder in shallow right field and threw him out in the eighth.

But the gem of the day came from LF Johnny Field. Sidelined the last two days with a mild right knee sprain, Field leaped near the left field wall to catch a deep Aledmys Diaz fly ball with two out in the top of the ninth.

“I thought it might have a chance to stay in,” Field said. “He got under it just enough where it was high enough in the air where I had a chance to get back there.”

Minutes later, Duffy was sending his team off to New York in style.

“To me, it looks like (the rookies) are playing baseball and having fun, whether that’s because they are calm or they don’t know what stage they are on yet,” Duffy said. “I have no worries about them being on a big stage.”

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