Rays Narrowly Avoid Infamy but Can’t Avoid the Sweep as Rangers Advance

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Rangers locked up their first postseason series since 2016 with an exclamation point, once again dominating the Tampa Bay Rays, this time by a score of 7-1. Nathan Eovaldi shook off his late-season struggles to deliver a masterclass, while Corey Seager and Josh Jung chipped in a pair of doubles each (with the latter also adding a triple), and Adolis García and Evan Carter went deep. For the Rays, this marked their third season in a row of playoff disappointment, and while they won’t sit atop the list of postseason scoreless streaks after Curtis Mead’s RBI single in the seventh, they’ll head into the offseason with more question marks than they’ve had in recent memory.

After the lefty Jordan Montgomery shut them down in Game One, the Rays made a couple of notable changes in advance of facing the right-handed Eovaldi. First, they shed the Devil Rays uniforms that may have doomed them to the fate of their World Series-less ancestors. Second, and more directly in response to yesterday’s events, they swapped the recently returned Jose Siri — who made critical errors on both sides of the ball yesterday — for the left-handed hitting Josh Lowe, shifting Manuel Margot from right field to center in order to accommodate him.

Margot, who missed a good chunk of the second half himself, was turned around on a Seager liner in just the second at-bat of the game. But after the Rangers stranded 14 runners yesterday — a franchise record for a postseason win — they couldn’t get Seager home. Texas’ second hitter reached in the next frame as well, but Yandy Díaz — who also struggled defensively yesterday, committing one of the franchise’s playoff-record four-errors — ensured that they didn’t have to worry about stranding Jonah Heim with a diving grab that doubled him off:

As for the Rays’ offense, Eovaldi looked sharp against them from the get-go. The 33-year-old, two-time Tommy John recipient missed several weeks with a forearm injury before returning to post a 9.30 ERA and 7.88 FIP in 20.1 September innings. But his velocity was solid through the first two frames of this one, and he notched five whiffs, with three coming on his high-spin splitter; contrary to what the broadcast may have had you think, splitters are intended to kill spin, and though Eovaldi’s is more of a spinner than the average split, it was successful in part because it was down 55 rpm early.

The Rangers put ducks on the pond again in the top of the third, with a Jung double leading the charge. But a quick turn on a big double play by the out-of-position Mead and a crucial strikeout of Robbie Grossman — who, in a bit of a head-scratcher, drew another start over Mitch Garver at DH and in the three-hole — quelled the threat. This left the Rangers with no runners on for García when he led off the fourth, limiting his homer to a solo shot:

But the game would quickly fall out of reach. After Zach Eflin set down the elder Lowe (Nathaniel) and Heim, Leody Taveras ripped a 102.1 mph liner up the middle for a single. Next, Jung floated a pop fly into short right, and the younger Lowe risked a dive with two outs. He came up short, and Jung ended up at third with a triple. Rattled, Eflin grooved a first-pitch cutter to Carter, who reached base for the sixth straight time to start his postseason career, homering this time. The shot was a two-run blast, and the Rangers had gone up four in a heartbeat:

Texas added another run in the next frame. After yesterday’s comedy of errors, the Rays committed their only miscue of the afternoon when Mead couldn’t come up with a Seager grounder to start things off in the fifth. The Texas shortstop eventually came around to score thanks to a Grossman seeing-eye single (that prompted boos from the Tampa Bay crowd) and a (Nathaniel) Lowe RBI groundout. That inning proved to be Eflin’s last; on the day, the right-hander gave up nine hard-hit (95 mph+) balls, with two leaving the yard, after living in the heart of the zone far too much:

But the Rays’ move to the bullpen provided little relief, as a trio of doubles in the sixth scored two more and put the Rangers up 7-0, while Tampa Bay’s offense hurtled towards a record-setting postseason scoreless streak. Eovaldi largely maintained his velocity into the late innings, and the Rays didn’t even get a runner past first until the seventh. That’s when they managed back-to-back singles on a pair of sub-.200 xBA grounders. Margot followed up the singles with a flyout, bringing up Mead. It was then, with Eovaldi laboring past 90 pitches for the first time since his forearm injury, that Mead ended the Rays’ scoreless streak at 33.2 innings — just short of tying the record — with a 106.5 mph liner.

That brought Eovaldi’s night to a close, but he was dominant overall, and his stuff proved that it wasn’t just due to the Rays’ haplessness. He continued pumping 95 into his last inning, notching whiffs on all of his pitches with expert separation:

If he recovers well, he’ll pair with Montgomery for a formidable one-two punch against the pride of the American League in Baltimore, though Dane Dunning may be the starter for Game One of the ALDS if the Rangers opt to have their top starters on more regular rest. They’ll face off against the Orioles beginning Saturday.

While they didn’t set the scoreless streak record, the Rays failed to win a game in the Wild Card round for the second year in a row, this despite 13 more regular-season wins. To their credit, they kept fighting with a pair of hits in the ninth, but they still moved to 1-7 in their past eight postseason contests. Yet, their playoff struggles are the least of their worries heading into next year. Their long list of Tommy John recipients and reliance on rookie position players down the stretch leave them with plenty to sort out this winter.





Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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bosoxforlifemember
6 months ago

I would like to be among the first few to jump enthusiastically aboard the Evan Carter bandwagon. I will have to find a place where I can place a few shekels on him for 2024 AL Rookie of the Year.

tz
6 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

He looks like he has a Christian Yelich type skill set, and even if he has a rough 2024 he’s very young with plenty of room to grow.

Sandy Kazmir
6 months ago
Reply to  tz

In my first real experience watching him he reminded me so much of Ben Zobrist. Loooong counts due to elite zone awareness, but what made Ben turn the power corner in 2008 was his newfound ability to jump on limped in first pitch fastballs once pitchers have been lured into a false sense of security. At 22 or whatever Carter is already showing that he knows how to walk that patience-passivity line, and it bodes well for a bright future.

sadtrombonemember
6 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I never really understood Eric’s hesitation on him. His upside isn’t quite as high as his age / level / production suggests but it’s hard to find real center fielders who can hit well.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, the write up is essentially “High-probability 110-120 wRC+ guy who plays a viable CF.”

Pretty clear-cut 55 profile.

sadtrombonemember
6 months ago

I think people who saw him smash 5 homers in 75 PAs but struck out a third of the time are not getting an accurate picture of his likely outcome. He’s probably going to both hit homers and strikeout at about half those rates. He’s not going to be like Julio Rodriguez (or Buxton, Luis Robert, or Matt Kemp, or any other high-power center fielder you can think of). Which is fine because a clearly above-average hitter who plays an above-average center fielder without being elite at either is the type of player is probably the 4th or 5th best position player on a championship team.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, Nimmo-lite is a 4-WAR guy!