Rays ride power display to wild-card win in Oakland

Rays 5 A’s 1

OAKLAND, Calif. —The Rays insisted they weren’t nervous, intimidated or overwhelmed by the pomp or the circumstance of playing their first postseason game since 2013, and the first in many of their careers, but that they were ready.

Manager Kevin Cash said it during a relaxed chat in his office mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier promised it during his pre-game interview room segment.

And then they went out and showed it, and in powerful style, beating the A’s 5-1 in the AL wild-card game and moving on to a Division Series matchup with the Astros starting Friday in Houston.

Yandy Diaz, who wasn’t expected to be in the lineup and until the last week or so a question to play again this season, homered to lead off the game and again in the third. Avisail Garcia hit a two-run homer in the second. Tommy Pham added a solo shot in the fifth.

Meanwhile Charlie Morton gave the Rays five good enough innings, Diego Castillo an impressive two, then Nick Anderson and former A’s reliever Emilio Pagan closed it out.

Just like the Rays weren’t affected by the stage, the spotlight and the MLB wild-card record crowd of 54,005, they insist they’ll be up to the challenge of playing the Astros, who won an MLB most 107 games and boast an aces-high rotation that starts with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. The Rays won the season series 4-3.

“Look, they’re better than us. Their pitching is better, their hitting is better,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said before Wednesday’s game. “But we find a way to just keep it close. If we were a team that had to hit the ball and win games 8-6, I wouldn’t be saying this. But I feel pretty strong that over a five- or seven-game series we’re going to be involved in a bunch of one-run, two-run games, and those games you can be on either side of it.”

Further, Sternberg said, “I really do feel if this team plays to its fullest we can beat any of the teams out there. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, doesn’t mean we’re not going to have some good fortune.

“If we pitch the ball like we’re supposed to, we’re smart on the basepaths and we’re able to have some solid at-bats, especially getting past this game, we can beat either or both of those other teams we’re going to face, whoever they might be, until we get to the (World) Series.”

Some of what the Rays did Wednesday was unexpected.

As a team, they became just the third in MLB postseason history to hit four home runs in a winner-take-all game, joining the 2004 Red Sox (ALCS Game 7) and 1956 Yankees (World Series Game 7).

And just the second in their five postseason trips to hit four homers in a game, matching their efforts in Game 3 of the 2008 ALCS against Boston.

Individually, Diaz became the first leadoff hitter in MLB history to homer in each of his first two at-bats of a single postseason.

And he became the fifth Ray to hit two homers in a playoff game. Evan Longoria did it in Game 1 of the 2008 AL Division Series against the White Sox, B.J. Upton in Game 4 of the same series, Kelly Shoppach in Game 1 of the 2011 AL Division Series against Texas, Desmond Jennings in Game 3 of that same series.

But how they did it was somewhat typical Rays, doing things that seem unusual, unorthodox, odd and seemingly risky.

Rays being Rays, you might say.

So maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when they made the unexpected and seemingly risky move to not just start Diaz, but to play him at first base.

So what that he just returned to active duty in Sunday’s season finale after missing more than two months with a fractured left foot. That up until the last two weeks he didn’t look like he’d make it back to play this season. And that when he played in a couple of instructional league games he only hit and when he did take ground balls at the Trop it was at third base.

None of that deterred the Rays, and they once again proved right.

“Yandy might be our best bat against left-handed pitching on the season,” Cash said before the game. “I know there’s been a gap in there a couple months since he played. We saw Brandon (Lowe) come back and miss close to two months and he didn’t seem to miss a beat with his timing.

“With Yandy, even when he’s healthy it’s a pretty low maintenance approach and swing. He doesn’t take BP hardly ever. He rarely goes in the cage. He just walks up and hits and has good at-bats. He’s got a feel for it. And that’s kind of what he’s done this season and we’re going to bank on that.”

Morton’s outing wasn’t his most impressive, as he allowed baserunners in each of his five innings, but it was effective as he got the outs when he needed them, allowing only one unearned run. He walked three and struck out four while throwing 94 pitches, 56 for strikes.

Morton loaded the bases in the first on a single and two walks, but got Jurickson Profar to fly out. He got double-play grounders to escape the second and the fifth. He allowed the one run in a messy sequence in the third when rookie Mike Brosseau and first baseman Diaz combined for a three-base error and Ramon Laureano delivered a sac fly, but got through the middle of the Oakland order, getting Matt Chapman to ground out, walking Matt Olson and striking out Mark Canha to keep it there.

And he got the biggest out in the fourth. The A’s had two on with one and then two outs, and had two on with Marcus Semien, their MVP candidate at the plate, and Morton got him to ground out.

The Rays will set their pitching plans on the flight to Houston, but are likely to start Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow in the first two games, which are at 2:05 Friday and 9:05 Saturday.

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