The Rays’ dispiriting 4-0 loss to the Texas Rangers on their home field in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card series on Tuesday — in which they racked up nearly as many errors (four) as hits (six) — felt like an inflection point, a moment that can rally a team or totally implode it. With their season on the line in Game 2 on Wednesday afternoon, we found out pretty quickly which one Tampa chose: implosion.
Texas put their foot on the Rays’ neck and never let up, rolling to a 7-0 win to earn their first Division Series appearance since 2016. They’ll take on the Orioles in the next round, with Game 1 set for Saturday afternoon at Camden Yards.
In many ways Game 2 followed the same rhythms as Game 1: The Rangers once again got a dynamite starting pitching performance — this time from Nathan Eovaldi, looking the best he has since coming off the IL last month — and big days at the plate from Corey Seager and star rookie Evan Carter, who added a walk and a homer to his young postseason resume after two hits on Tuesday.
Texas touched up Rays starter Zach Eflin for four runs in the top of the fourth, and from there, it felt like the air had been totally taken out of the Trop. (Not that another sub-20,000 crowd needed much help in that department.) The Rangers scored another in the fifth and two more in the sixth, getting at least one hit from every member of the starting lineup and multi-hit efforts from Seager (2-for-4, R, RBI) and Josh Jung (3-for-4, 2 R, RBI). One through nine, they made Eflin and the rest of the Tampa staff work for just about everything, looking as deep and dangerous as they did for large parts of this season before fading a bit late.
The even bigger story though, at least as it pertains to the Rangers’ chances at making a run deep into October, was Eovaldi. The righty simply hadn’t looked like himself after rushing back from a forearm strain, getting lit up for a 9.30 ERA over six September starts. He still didn’t have his peak velocity on Wednesday, but he was much better, consistently sitting 95 and 96 and using his breaking ball and splitter to great effect.
Nathan Eovaldi's 6th and 7th Ks.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 4, 2023
Thru 4. pic.twitter.com/d9Z7ub15wL
Eovaldi struck out eight over 6.2 innings, only losing the shutout on an RBI single from Curtis Mead in the seventh that would end his afternoon. For as tough as Texas’ lineup looks, their rotation is hanging by a thread after injuries to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer; they’re going to need this version of Eovaldi if they want to go toe-to-toe with teams like Baltimore and Houston (and, eventually, Los Angeles or Atlanta).
For the Rays, meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a more discouraging postseason performance — a year after getting swept out of the Wild Card round while scoring just one run over two games, they’re swept out of the Wild Card round while scoring ... zero runs over two games. This was more than just small-sample weirdness, too: Tampa’s whole approach, both at the plate and in the field, felt off, swinging at just about every cutter and curveball Eovaldi offered up and flailing at balls in the outfield. (The Rays only — “only” — committed one error in Game 2, but that doesn’t include several plays they could’ve made but didn’t, including Randy Arozarena turning a single into a double with an ill-timed dive and Curtis Mead failing to come up with a hard grounder in the hole at second.)
Yes, there are mitigating factors here, namely injuries to 60 percent of their Opening Day rotation. But this is now twice in a row that Tampa’s lineup has faltered in October, and despite their historic start to this season, there will no doubt be tough questions asked over the winter. The future is still very bright — top prospects Mead and Junior Caminero is here to stay, and there are plenty of other bullets on the farm — but it’s worth wondering why the Rays have had such a hard time holding up deep into the season.
Texas, on the other hand, has managed to right the ship in impressive fashion after most observers left them for dead last week. The Rangers also had a beleaguered rotation, one of the main reasons they lost the AL West to the Astros on the season’s final weekend. Their lineup, however, came to play, and they seemed like the more assured team both Tuesday and Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether they have the depth to conquer the AL’s top seed, but Baltimore is sure in for a fight.