TORONTO – Matt Moore knew for weeks he would pitch the final game of the regular season, and in the back of his mind he knew the entire season could ride on his left arm even when it appeared the Rays would secure a playoff spot before today.
Pitching coach Jim Hickey painted the dire scenario a few weeks ago.
“He usually does call the weird stuff way before it happens,” Moore said.
The weird stuff happened.
The Tampa Bay Rays arrived in Toronto on Friday needing wins in two of the three games against the Blue Jays to clinch the top wild-card spot and host Wednesday’s wild-card game.
Instead, the Rays lost the first two games, including Saturday’s 7-2 drubbing, and need a win today or help from a pair of unlikely sources to keep the season alive.
“We’re in a fine situation as long as we win,” Moore said. “It’s one of those things, we’re trying to keep playing as long as we can.”
The Rays return to the Rogers Centre today tied for second in the wild-card standings with the Texas Rangers. Both teams sit one game behind the Cleveland Indians.
“We like to make it interesting, that’s for sure,” Evan Longoria said. “There’s no lack of intensity or excitement, I guess. I’m sure everybody will be on the edge of their seat (today) watching on TV or if they’re here in the ballpark. I think everybody in (the clubhouse) is pretty calm and confident.”
The Rays do not have to win today to extend the season. But that would require the Indians or Rangers to lose, a scenario that would set up a tiebreaker Monday and, possibly, Tuesday if the teams finish in a three-way tie.
The Indians have won nine straight after beating the Minnesota Twins on Saturday, while the Rangers extended their winning streak to six with their victory against the Los Angeles Angels.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has downplayed the significance of each win or loss this month, finally conceded that today is a big game.
“It is the first must-win we’ve been in all year,” he said. “It’s a must-advance-somehow game.”
The Rays carried a seven-game winning streak into this series but have been badly outplayed, which Maddon said he doesn’t find disappointing.
“Just surprised,” Maddon said. “I’m never disappointed in our guys. It would be more of a surprise based on how well we had been doing.”
Moore is 9-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 15 road starts this season. He’s 2-0 against the Jays this year.
While Moore said he never thought today’s start would carry such consequences because that would have been negative thinking, he is glad to have such an important assignment.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wouldn’t shy away from a situation like this. It’s something every teammate would love to be able to step up for everybody and have a good game. That’s what we’re looking to do. I’m feeling very good and very confident about it as far as what we can do (today).”
Pitching for the Blue Jays is St. Petersburg native Todd Redmond, whose parents are Rays season-ticket holders. Redmond is aware he can make a lot of people back home unhappy this afternoon.
“That’s fine, I’m OK with that,” he said. “I’m going to treat it like every other start. It’s the last game of the year, and we have a chance to win a game. That’s how I’m going to treat it.”
The Rays took a 1-0 lead Saturday in the first inning when Wil Myers singled home Ben Zobrist. But like R.A. Dickey on Friday, J.A. Happ settled in and the Jays offense took over.
Now they face a similar situation to the final day of the 2011 season, when they entered the night tied with the Boston Red Sox for what was then the lone wild-card spot.
Longoria led the Rays to a victory against New York in what is known as “Game 162.”
“We can’t say we’ve never been there before, and I like our chances,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m really excited.”
Maddon said his team needs to relax and be themselves, something that carried them through the seven-game winning streak against the Orioles and Yankees.
“I’m totally confident in our guys,” he said, “and I really believe you’re going to see the best side of Matt Moore.”