Rays aim to pull level with Orioles atop AL East

Field Level Media

September 15, 2023 at 4:50 am.

After one game in their showdown series, the Tampa Bay Rays know it can’t be one-and-done from their side.

They’ve got more to do.

The visiting Rays and the Baltimore Orioles will meet Friday night in the second game of a four-game series that will figure heavily in who wins the American League East.

Tampa Bay (91-57) prevailed 4-3 on Thursday night to pull within one game of first-place Baltimore (91-55). The next few games could have a similar tone.

“(I expect it) to look exactly like it did (in the series opener),” Rays outfielder Luke Raley said. “It’s two good ballclubs going at it. They’re super-talented over there. We know it’s going to be a dogfight all four games, and we’re ready for it.”

Raley’s solo home run in the seventh inning broke a tie, and that one-run lead held up.

The Rays are as close as they have been to the Orioles since they were one game back on July 22. The two teams were tied atop the division on July 21, three days after Tampa Bay last held the lead on its own.

“We know we have to win three of four here if not take all four,” Raley said. “We know what’s on the line, so we’re going to play with a lot of passion, fire.”

Tampa Bay has won six of its past seven games. The past three were all decided by one run.

The Orioles have dropped three games in a row for the first time since they snapped a four-game skid on July 2. Even so, they are happy to be in such a good position in mid-September.

“This is what you play for all year,” Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde said. “Play meaningful games in September. It’s something you always talk about.”

The Orioles received good news regarding first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, who was cleared to play after exiting the Wednesday game with a left shoulder injury that left the team with heightened concerns.

Mountcastle didn’t play on Thursday and he might not be in the lineup with another right-hander starting for the Rays on Friday. However, his presence could be a boost.

“Love the way he’s swinging the bat,” Hyde said. “Had a couple rough games as of late, but such a threat at the plate. A guy that can go deep at any time and take good at-bats.”

Right-hander Zach Eflin (14-8, 3.53 ERA), who will start for the Rays on Friday night, blanked the Orioles on two hits for seven innings in a July 21 home victory. He has gone 3-3 with a 3.91 ERA in nine starts since then.

Since Aug. 1, Eflin has pitched in only three road games, but Tampa Bay has won all of those as he allowed a total of one run in 18 1/3 innings. Against the Orioles, he is 2-2 with a 3.36 ERA in four career starts, including a 1-1 mark with a 2.77 ERA in two starts this year.

Right-hander Jack Flaherty (8-8, 4.98 ERA) heads to the mound for the Orioles in need of a personal bounce-back performance. He hasn’t registered a victory since winning his Orioles debut on Aug. 3 after arriving in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Only once in his past four outings has he completed five innings.

Flaherty has pitched in 128 major league games, but he has never faced the Rays.