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Rays Lose Late to Guardians, Miss Out on First Chance to Clinch

The Tampa Bay Rays let their first chance to clinch a playoff spot slip away on Thursday night when the Cleveland Guardians scored twice in the eighth inning to win 2-1 for the second night in a row. The Rays now head off to Houston, with their magic number still at one.
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CLEVELAND, Ohio — The champagne was at the ready, and the Tampa Bay Rays were just six outs away from clinching a playoff spot for a record-setting fourth year in a row. 

But getting those outs proved to be a problem, and another brilliantly-pitched game went to waste when the Cleveland Guardians scored twice in the eighth inning to take a 2-1 victory. It meant that the Rays' magic number remained stuck at one.

Instead of partying with the bubbly, the Rays instead have to pack up for Houston and take it with them. They start a three-game series there on Friday night against the Astros, and the goal remains the same. One more victory —or one more loss by the Baltimore Orioles — and the ticket to the postseason gets punched.

"It's very tough, especially since we played a good game and we could have clinched,'' Franco said.

That celebration could have happened Thursday night because the Rays did a lot of good things. Starter Jeffrey Springs was excellent, throwing six scoreless innings and allowing just three hits, two of them infield hits. He didn't walk anyone, and he had five strikeouts. 

"He did a great job today,'' said Franco, who has hit safely in 14 of his past 15 games.

The Rays scored their only run in the first, with Franco doubling deep to center and then scoring on a single from David Peralta. For the longest time, it looked like the Rays were going to have it hold up, too. Springs was that good.

"I felt like I was able to spread the ball around and change speeds and keep them off-balance,'' Springs said. "They're a good team. They're aggressive-swinging and they understand the zone. I tried to execute my pitches the best I could.''

Tampa Bay starter Jeffrey Springs threw six scoreless innings on Thursday, allowing just three soft hits. He lowered his ERA to 2.45 on the year. (USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay starter Jeffrey Springs threw six scoreless innings on Thursday, allowing just three soft hits. He lowered his ERA to 2.45 on the year. (USA TODAY Sports)

Shawn Armstrong, who hadn't allowed a run and only two hits in his last four outings covering 5 2/3 innings, came on to pitch the seventh and retired the side in order. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Rays manager Kevin Cash sent Armstrong back out for a second inning of work, and he ran into all sorts of trouble in the eighth, though not a lot of it was his own fault. Armstrong, who has pitched multiple innings on nine occasions this year and the Rays are 2-7 in those games, couldn't close the door.

In the eighth, Armstrong gave up a lead-off single to pinch-hitter Will Brennan and Myles Straw quickly sacrificed him to second, flipping the batting order. Up came Steven Kwan, who bats left-handed and is hitting .302 on the season. Kwan's lefty-right splits are practically identical — he's hitting .298 vs. left-handers, and .304 vs. righties — so he was Armstrong's to deal with.

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Kwan took a 1-1 fastball away ''that I probably elevated a bit too much,'' Armstrong said, and blooped it down the left field line, scoring Brennan to tie the game. 

"Kwan hit the pitch that was thrown, and he's a good hitter,'' Armstrong said. "I faced him the first time and he swung through that pitch. Good hitters hit good pitches. 

"Frustration is the perfect word right now for me. Our bullpen did a great job the last two days. We didn't get it done, but we can move on from this and win (Friday).''

After a groundout, the Rays intentionally walked Guardians star Jose Ramirez. On the first pitch to Andres Gimenez, Armstrong jammed him and he scuffed a grounder to Ji-Man Choi's right at first base. He couldn't field it cleanly though on a tough hop and Kwan scored to make it a 2-1 lead.

And that was enough. 

"Its one of those where they're up and in and they fist it like that, it probably has some tricky spin to it,'' Armstrong said. "Ji-Man does a great job over there defensively, but it was a perfect spot, a perfect placement.''

The Rays only had four hits on the night and lost 2-1 for the second night in a row. They have lost four of their past five games and scored just one run in all four losses. The loaded the bases in the ninth on three walks, but Choi struck out and Isaac Paredes popped out to second to end the game. Trevor Stephan got the save for Cleveland, his third of the season. He needed 34 pitches to get the final three outs.

"There are just times when the bats aren't hot. it's just part of it,'' Franco said. 

The day started with such promise because Baltimore lost to Boston for the third straight day, giving the Rays a chance to clinch. But the Rays, who are just 7-13 in their last 20 games, just aren't getting any timely hits right now. They are also just 7-17 in one-run games on the road.

That's why there's more to just making the playoffs for the Rays, who are now 85-71 on the season. Sure, getting in would be nice, and the Rays are almost assured of that. But getting home-field advantage in that first wild-card round would be nice too, but the Rays are now two games behind Toronto with six to go. They are in a virtual tie with Seattle, who's playing a late game Thursday night.

And they will wait to celebrate.

"There's disappointment any time you lose, and the disappointment tonight was that we were up 1-0 in the eighth inning and we lost,'' Cash said. 

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