HOUSTON — The Rays brought up several of their top prospects so they can get as much experience as possible.
And Monday that included seeing how the relentless defending champion Astros worked their way back from an early four-run deficit to score a 5-4 walkoff victory and extend their winning streak to a franchise-tying 12.
"It's a tough one, no doubt," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "This is going to be a frustrating one."
The Rays took a 4-3 lead into the ninth, but Sergio Romo walked Marwin Gonzalez on four pitches then allowed a single to Max Stassi, and a bunt moved the runners up. Then an interference call on C Wilson Ramos loaded the bases for Alex Bregman, who laced a double to left center scoring the tying and winning runs.
Romo, a veteran of 10 major-league seasons, declined to talk with reporters after the game: "I've got nothing to say."
Cash described the ninth this way: "Leadoff walk, couple tough pitches, couple odd things took place and then Bregman comes up and gets a big hit."
The Astros rolled into the game after completing a 10-0 road trip and winners of 11 straight, and with one of their multiple aces, RHP Gerrit Cole, on the mound.
So naturally the Rays (33-39) raced off to a 4-0 lead.
They got two in the first, when rookie Jake Bauers walked and Wilson Ramos laced an opposite-field homer, his ninth. And they got two more in the third when Cole walked the bases loaded and Joey Wendle delivered a two-run single.
But they knew it wouldn't be easy against the relentless defending champs.
The Astros got two back in the fourth off RHP Matt Andriese, as Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel rapped three straight hits and Josh Reddick added a sac fly. They got another in the sixth, when Altuve laced a ball into the leftfield corner and ended up on third on Johnny Field's misplay, then scored when manager Kevin Cash brought in lefty Jose Alvarado to face righty-swinging Gurriel and he singled.
The game had the look and strategies of a postseason game, as the Rays used seven pitchers.
"We sold out to try to win a ballgame and got aggressive with the moves and they got aggressive on their side with some of the pinch-hitting," Cash said. "It all basically worked in our favor until the last inning."
The Rays opened Monday's game with a twist.
They used RHP Ryne Stanek as planned, but after he retired the five right-handers at the top of the Houston order, they brought in LHP Jonny Venters to face the three lefties and switch-hitter at the bottom, then turned to RHP Andriese for length.
In reiterating before the game that they planned to stick with the plan of using openers as they currently have only two traditional starters in Blake Snell and Nathan Eovaldi, Cash also indicated they are going to continue to experiment with the process.
"There's a lot of ways this could go,'' he said. "We could shorten up the middle guy to where we ask him to get one time through (the order). We'll continue to see how this evolves.''
Astros manager A.J. Hinch said the Rays' unorthodox plans didn't alter their strategy.
Kiermaier joins Rays, will return Tuesday
CF Kevin Kiermaier's ahead-of-schedule return from right thumb surgery was further accelerated as he joined the Rays in Houston for a workout Monday and will be activated Tuesday night.
Kiermaier, who last played April 15, was slated for a Friday return but convinced the Rays he was ready to go after just five rehab games, going 7-for-17 with four walks, one steal, making a diving catch, throwing all out.
"Everything that was asked of me I did,'' he said. "It got to the point where I'm like, I'm ready to be back.''
Kiermaier made sure his bosses knew that with a barrage of texts to Cash and hitting coach Chad Mottola: "I said how many more line drives is it going take for me to get that call to Houston. I guess I convinced them enough.''
Cash joked that he gave in just so Kiermaier would stop blowing up his phone, but said it was a collective decision with Kiermaier and the medical and minor-league staffs. "He was in a good spot physically and a good spot mentally,'' Cash said. "And we're a better team when KK is on the field.''
Kiermaier acknowledged he will be dealing for a while with soreness in the area where the ligament was repaired, but he said he can deal with the pain. "It feels good enough,'' he said. Also, he has no plans to stop sliding headfirst, which is how he was injured, but will wear protective gear.
To reinstate Kiermaier the Rays will have to make room on the 25- and 40-man rosters. To do so in one move, they could DFA a pitcher or most likely OF Rob Refsnyder. OF Carlos Gomez, showing some signs of improvement at the plate after extended struggles, seems likely to stick around.
More medical: Archer, Robertson
RHP Chris Archer (abdominal strain) is making slow progress, with plans to get back on the mound for the first time in nearly two weeks with a bullpen session Friday. Even if that goes well, Archer is at least a couple weeks away form a return as he will need rehab starts to build pitch count. … INF Daniel Robertson (hamstring strain) will play a rehab game with the advanced Class A Stone Crabs on Tuesday and if all goes well will be activated Friday, which could impact INF Adeiny Hechavarria's stay with the Rays.
Cash said he had "a really good conversation" with Adeiny Hechavarria in explaining his playing time at shortstop — as long as he stays with the Rays — will be limited due to the arrival of prospect Willy Adames. "He was very understanding of the situation and I was extremely appreciative of how he handled it.'' Cash said Hechavarria will still get to play some, and when he does it will be at short, that "we'll move some other guys around.''
• Obviously the circumstances deserve an asterisk but the Rays extended their major-league record, first noted by Jayson Stark of the Athletic, of seven starts without allowing a hit.
• LHP Blake Snell said he was "excited" by the opportunity to face the hot-hitting Astros and to be matched up with ace Justin Verlander tonight.
• RHP Sergio Romo became the first pitcher in 14 years to have at least five starts and three saves in any 30-day span since Toronto's Miguel Batista in 2004, per Elias Sports.