Tussle for division title intensifies with Rays in town

Now, it gets real.

Or real important. And really hard.

The other games counted, of course, but the Orioles are set to play four against the Rays beginning tonight at Camden Yards. The team that’s two behind them in the division race. The team with the same lengthy stubborn streak, refusing to let injuries and other impactful issues break its spirit and damage postseason aspirations.

The Orioles returned to their clubhouse last night with their magic number at four to clinch the first playoff birth since 2016. That’s the immediate task, and it could be done in a few days.

An Orioles win reduces the number by one. And so on. That’s the simplest math in an otherwise complicated equation, which induces headaches when also factoring in other teams like the Rangers and Mariners.

Playing in the postseason is a foregone conclusion, but why drag out the finality of it? Take care of business and go crazy.

Both teams have their eyes on a bigger prize. They want the division title, and the Orioles’ magic number is frozen at 15.

The Rays are the top seed among the wild card contenders, but that’s only a consolation.

“Everybody in this clubhouse is dead set on winning the division,” pitcher Zach Eflin told the Tampa Bay Times. “We don’t really have anything on our minds of what we want to do other than just win the division. That’s exactly where our heads are.”

The rest of the bodies also are in Baltimore, where one Orioles win in the series tilts the tiebreaker. They’ve gone 6-3 against the Rays, who have won five of their last six games and 12 of 17.

“Obviously, it’s a huge series no matter what, no matter which way you look at it, the top two teams in the East,” said the University of Maryland’s Brandon Lowe. “It has huge playoff implications.''

“I’m excited,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told the media yesterday. “Any time you’ve got a chance to play a team that is ahead of you, and you can gain ground, that’s ultimately going to be the goal. They’re a very good team. They’ve done a lot of special things offensively, pitching, defense, they’ve kind of all come together really, really quick. So, we’ve got plenty of challenges.

“I think our best thing that we can do is to go in there, try to play our style, where we pitch well, prevent runs and get some big hits.”

Reliever Robert Stephenson earned his third career save yesterday, met with local reporters and said, “Everyone knows it’s a big series, but at the same time you have to continue playing baseball the same way we’ve been playing all season long. And if we do that, we’re going to take care business in Baltimore.”

“I think it’s obvious we all want to win the division,” said Isaac Paredes.

“We’re just focused to win the division,” said Harold Ramírez. “It’s important for us.”

To fully understand the Rays’ perspective, look no further than their 50-25 record at Tropicana Field. Being in the dome can doom an opponent. It’s been a torture chamber for the Orioles in past years.

They went 4-2 in St. Petersburg this summer after going 2-7 last year and are 98-127 all-time in road matchups.

“Any time we’re playing at the Trop, we play well,” Eflin said. “We love our fans, we love playing in that atmosphere. It’s huge, especially in the postseason, to have home field advantage, play somewhere where you’re comfortable and not in that hostile environment. So, we’re doing everything we can to do that.”

Manager Brandon Hyde can shift his focus to the series after trying to pull the media’s attention back to last night’s finale against the Cardinals. He was asked multiple times about the significance of facing the Rays with so much on the line, and how far the Orioles have come after 100-plus loss seasons. He was cooperative but uncomfortable.

“Everybody understands the standings and where we are from the finish line,” he said, “and we’ve got to play really well against a really good club.”

The Orioles want homefield advantage. They want the bye. Every bit as much as the Rays.

“I think giving pitchers days off, that’s extremely important, especially where we are with our pitching staff and the usage of our bullpen and those types of things,” Hyde said.

The Orioles are sending out their ace tonight, right-hander Kyle Bradish, who’s sitting on a 3.03 ERA that’s the third-lowest in the American League. He’s 11-6 with a 1.092 WHIP and 145 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings.

Bradish has a streak of five quality starts in a row and six out of seven. He’s faced the Rays twice this season and allowed four runs in 11 innings with 13 strikeouts. He’s surrendered 15 runs and 26 hits over 20 2/3 innings in four career starts.

On the subject of streaks, the Orioles have won each of his last seven starts, the most recent loss coming on July 26 in Philadelphia.

The Rays acquired right-hander Aaron Civale from the Guardians on Aug. 31 after he posted a 2.34 ERA and 1.039 WHIP in 13 starts. He’s appeared in seven games with Tampa Bay and allowed 17 runs and 38 hits in 35 2/3 innings.

Civale won both career starts against the Orioles in 2021, but he allowed nine runs and 16 hits in 11 innings.

Cedric Mullins is 4-for-6 with a double and two solo home runs against Civale. Ryan Mountcastle is 5-for-6 with a double, two home runs and five RBIs, but he might be headed to the injured list after feeling his left shoulder pop last night while fouling off a pitch in the first inning.

Mountcastle is undergoing an MRI today. He was somber after the game, saying that he’s concerned about his shoulder. Meanwhile, outfielder Heston Kjerstad was pulled from last night's game at Triple-A Norfolk.

These are easy dots to connect, the size of manhole covers. Kjerstad is the corresponding move if Mountcastle goes on the injured list. The Orioles are keeping him close, just in case.

Losing back-to-back games to the Cardinals wasn’t the worst news, but it snapped the Orioles’ streak of seven series triumphs in a row.

“I think the last thing we need to do right now is make too much about one loss and losing a series,” said Kyle Gibson, who registered his 16th quality start. “Yeah, does it stink that Tampa won? Sure. But we’re two games up and if we play really good baseball here the next three weeks, I think we’ll be fine.

“You never want to lose a series but, shoot, it’s going to happen at some point. You’re not going to win the rest of your games. You’d like to, but it’s not going to happen.”

Tonight’s game airs on FOX beginning at 7:15 p.m.

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