PHILADELPHIA – Collin McHugh has been as close as possible to a sure thing this season in the volatile profession of relief pitching. The right-hander hadn’t given up his well-deserved run in three months when he climbed the hill at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night to beat the eighth inning by a run. The last home run he allowed was on April 3 when he made his Rays debut against the first batter he faced all season.
When Rhys Hoskins met a game-defining homer to leave McHugh with two outs on the eighth field, the Rays were primarily stunned. But they were also motivated.
“That feeling of how good he has been for us over the past three months has started a fire among our boys I think,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe. “We say, ‘We have to pick him up like he’s been picking us up for three months.'”
They did just that, constructing another late inning rally, crowned by Francisco Mejías 3-run homer ahead of Zack Wheeler, to secure a 7-4 win over the Phillies and a road sweep in two games. The Rays have won four games in a row to improve to a best of 79-48 in the American League, a season high of 31 games over .500. They have won eight of the last nine games and 26 of 37 since the All-Star hiatus to fend off the aspiring Yankees and maintain a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL East.
As so often, they won on Wednesday evening. They played all over the field, what manager Kevin Cash called a “great” defense, came from behind and scored late. The Rays overcame an early deficit on one run and scored four runs in the last two innings, meaning they have recorded 39 of their 79 wins this season and now have a Major League-leading 253 runs in the seventh inning or later.
A late inning rally on Wednesday night wasn’t enough. Fortunately for the rays, they never seem to run out.
“We’re not worried. We don’t like to give in, ”said Mejía through the interpreter Manny Navarro. “It’s part of the game and we had a lot of confidence.”
Lowe’s 30th home run of the season gave the Rays a two-run lead in fifth, but that was erased when Bryce Harper replaced Shawn Armstrong in after an early exit from left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, who threw 55 throws at the lowest point of the season the deep caught up in four-plus-innings.
With an out in the eighth, Wander Franco hit a low-line drive that diving second baseman Jean Segura couldn’t handle, allowing Franco to hit an infield single. He started from first base on Wheeler’s next pitch and Joey Wendle executed the hit-and-run perfectly with a single-to-right field. Randy Arozarena then knocked a broken racket grounder past Wheeler, and Franco scored what started when shortstop Freddy Galvis first made the out instead of trying to spin an inning-ending double play.
But the Rays leadership was short-lived. McHugh, who drove a franchise record streak of 33 2/3 innings without allowing a deserved run, gave Hoskins two outs in the eighth game on a game-tying homer. McHugh hadn’t been charged with a deserved run since May 24, a series of 17 appearances.
“He’s pretty high on himself so it was a little shocking,” said Cash. “He picked us up, so it was nice that we could go out and pick him up.”
Wheeler, a potential candidate for the National League’s Cy Young Award, returned to the hill to begin ninth place. Yandy Díaz sank right field and Kevin Kiermaier hit a 2-0 fastball just inside the third baseline for a double and brought out Mejía. The switch hitting catcher dropped 0-2, then launched a high fastball projected 409 feet into right field by Statcast to give Tampa Bay a three-run lead.
It was a Tampa Bay catcher’s 32nd home run that season, with Mike Zunino responsible for 26 and Mejía counting his sixth. If you feel like Mejía made a habit of delivering clutch hits with the Rays in his first season, you are not alone.
“He’s got a knack for figuring out guys on the grassroots and getting the big hit,” said Cash. “Especially with these heroics in the late game, he showed that he can hit any fastball. He’s going to be locked up. “
“It feels like all of his homers seem to be in huge places and none of them are alone. It feels like he’s going to do three or four runs every time he hits a homer, ”said Lowe. “There’s something in his bats, something in his genes. He just feels very comfortable up there in big situations. “
In fact, Mejía now has eight tie-break hits this season, including four in the ninth inning or later. On August 10, he scored a three-run tie-break single against Matt Barnes in the Rays’ 8-4 win at Fenway Park. On May 24 against the Blue Jays, he sparked an eleventh inning of seven runs with a tie-break single in a 14-8 win. Three days earlier, he started a Grand Slam in the 12th inning of a 9-5 win in Dunedin, Florida.
So yeah, he had his fair share of late inning moments for a team that had more than his fair share of late inning action. The Rays lead the majors with 92 runs in the eighth inning and 73 in the ninth inning, and they outperform their opponents by 140 runs from the sixth inning this season.
“If it’s not one, it’s the other. We all have the same confidence to help and support one another, ”said Mejía. “We all have confidence that someone will do something.”