(Photo credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)
With only nine games remaining in their pursuit of first place in the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays will hand the ball to ace Zach Eflin when they oppose the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Fla.
In the rubber match of a three-game series, Eflin (15-8, 3.44 ERA) will make what likely will be his next-to-last regular-season start before a probable Game 1 start in the postseason.
So far, catching the first-place Baltimore Orioles (95-57) has been as frustrating for the Rays (93-60) as Wile E. Coyote's unsuccessful quest to catch his cartoonish avian prey, the Road Runner.
The Orioles won the first two games of their three-game series in Houston this week before dropping their Wednesday afternoon contest on a walk-off single by the Astros' Mauricio Dubon.
Tampa Bay would have moved within 1 1/2 games of Baltimore with a win Wednesday night, but the Rays fell 8-3 to the Angels and slipped 2 1/2 games behind the Orioles.
When Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash was informed his staff's 19 strikeouts of Los Angeles batters tied the club record for a nine-inning game, the disappointment of not capitalizing on the AL East leader's earlier setback was evident in his answer.
"Tonight's probably not the night to celebrate tying any record," Cash replied sternly.
With starting pitchers Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen lost for the season due to injuries and Tyler Glasnow having missed the season's first two months due to an oblique ailment, Eflin has been the Rays' most reliable, durable starter throughout.
Over a team-high 29 starts, the right-hander has set career highs in wins (American League-leading 15), innings (167 2/3), strikeouts (172), hits per nine innings (7.9) and walks per nine innings (1.2).
Among starting pitchers, Eflin tops the majors in WHIP (1.014).
In two career starts against the Angels, the 29-year-old is 2-0 with a stellar 0.64 ERA. In 14 innings vs. Los Angeles, Eflin has allowed just nine hits in 51 at-bats (.177) and only one run -- a solo homer by former Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe on Aug. 19 in Anaheim, Calif. Eflin won that contest with six strong innings.
The Angels (69-83) got a powerful performance from Brandon Drury while breaking their six-game losing streak on Wednesday.
Batting as the team's designated hitter, the 31-year-old veteran stroked a three-run homer in the second inning and added a two-run shot in the sixth.
"(My offense) has been streaky," said Drury, whose five RBIs were one shy of his career best. "I'd been struggling a little bit, so tonight felt good. (The DH spot) is fine. I just want to get at-bats."
In the Thursday finale, Los Angeles will try to even the season series at 3-3, which would prevent the Rays from clinching their seventh straight winning campaign vs. the Angels.
Griffin Canning (7-7, 4.42 ERA) will make his 21st start and 23rd appearance of 2023 for Los Angeles. In three September starts, the 27-year-old right-hander is 0-3 with a 4.67 ERA.
Over three lifetime appearances (two starts) against the Rays, he is 1-1 with a 4.40 ERA. He got a victory in relief against Tampa Bay on Aug. 19, when he tossed 3 1/3 innings of one-run ball.
--Field Level Media