Blue Jays drop opener to Rays in crucial 4-game series between playoff contenders

Wander Franco had three RBIs, Jonathan Aranda homered and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 10-5 on Thursday night in the opener of a big four-game series between playoff contenders.

Randy Arozarena had three hits and drove in two runs for the Rays, who were coming off a three-game series in which they were swept by Houston and scored just twice.

“Baseball’s weird. I saw a score tonight that was a little different.” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “They do a good job of flushing it, getting to the next day, coming in ready to work, get better, and find a way to win.”

Tampa Bay (83-67) pulled within one game of Toronto (84-66) for the top spot in the AL wild-card standings. Seattle (82-67) is in third, four games ahead of Baltimore.

Whit Merrifield homered twice for Toronto, and Teoscar Hernandez also went deep. Jose Berrios (11-6) was tagged for six runs and seven hits in two innings.

“It was just a little bit weird with getting ahead and not putting guys away,” Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider said of Berrios, who threw 74 pitches,.

Toronto has dropped three of four after winning 13 of 17 to start September.

Manuel Margot’s infield RBI single, and run-scoring hits by Franco and Arozarena put the Rays up 6-3 in the second.

Franco added a two-run double during the Rays’ three-run fourth.

“I think we did the right adjustments today,” Franco said through a translator. “We played really good, and hopefully we can continue on with this energy.”

Cash opted to have Ryan Yarbrough (3-8) replace opener JT Chargois to start the second, facing a pair of hitters with some career success against the lefty.

Hernandez hit a leadoff homer, his seventh in 34 at-bats against Yarbrough. One out later, Merrifield tied it at 3 with his solo shot, giving him seven hits, including two homers, in nine at-bats against the left-hander.

Merrifield added a two-run drive in the ninth.

Yarbrough left in the third with right oblique strain and is “highly likely going on the IL,” according to Cash.

Garrett Cleavinger replaced Yarbrough and allowed one hit in two scoreless innings before Shawn Armstrong, Brooks Raley and Colin Poche combined for three hitless innings.

Aranda homered on the second pitch from Berrios in a three-run first. Arozarena hit a run-scoring double, went to third on a throw to the plate and scored on a wild pitch.

Toronto’s Bo Bichette hit a run-scoring double in the first, giving him 24 RBIs in 21 games in September.

Rays radio play-by-play man Andy Freed caught a foul ball from Toronto’s George Springer during the seventh in a net the broadcasters keep in their box.

The Blue Jays are lining up right-hander Alek Manoah (14-7. 2.40 ERA) to start the final regular-season game or a potential wild-card opener.

Schneider would use Manoah if home-field advantage was at stake.

“I think there would be nothing better than playing in front of our fans in the postseason after the last couple years [impacted by the pandemic],” Schneider said. “We haven’t been there with what the world and country has been through.”

Rays right-hander Kevin Herget, who made his big league debut on Sept. 13 after a decade in the minors, was designated for assignment.

Infielder/outfielder Miles Mastrobuoni was selected from Triple-A Durham after seven years in the minors and a couple weeks following his brother’s wedding.

“It’s been an eventful month for our family,” Mastrobuoni said.

Blue Jays outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (left hamstring) is doing baseball activities and could soon start running. Infielder Santiago Espinal (left oblique) went on the IL.

Rays ace Shane McClanahan (neck stiffness) had a bullpen session and is set to start Sunday.

Rays’ Jeffrey Springs (9-4) will start Friday night. Toronto has not announced its starter.

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